Harriet Sloane had never been pretty, but she’d known pretty people and they always seemed to attract trouble. They were either loved for being pretty or hated for exactly the same reason. When Calvin Evans began dating Elizabeth Zott, Harriet assumed pretty was why. But when she first spied on them from her perch in her living room, their curtains obligingly parted to give her an unobstructed view into their living room, she had to rethink her assumption.
To her it seemed Calvin and Elizabeth had enjoyed a strange relationship—almost supernatural—like identical twins separated at birth who accidentally stumble upon each other in a foxhole and despite death all around, are amazed to discover that not only do they look alike and share a serious allergy to clams, but neither liked Dean Martin. “Really?” she imagined Calvin and Elizabeth saying to each other all the time. “Me, too!”
It hadn’t been that way with her and the now-retired Mr. Sloane. The only excitement had come at the beginning but it had worn off like cheap nail polish. She’d found him bold because he had a tattoo and seemed not to notice that her ankles were thick and her hair was thin. In retrospect, that should have been a clue—that he didn’t notice her—because then maybe she would have realized he was never going to notice her.
She couldn’t remember how soon into their marriage she began to realize she wasn’t in love with him, nor he with her, but it was probably somewhere between the way he pronounced drawer “joor” and the way his
thicket of body hair constantly detached itself like seeds from a dandelion head, blanketing their home.
Yes, living with Mr. Sloane was revolting, but Harriet was not completely repelled by his physical defects—she shed herself. Rather, it was his low-grade stupidity she abhorred—his dull, opinionated, know-nothing charmless complexion; his ignorance, bigotry, vulgarity, insensitivity; and above all, his wholly undeserved faith in himself. Like most stupid people, Mr. Sloane wasn’t smart enough to know just how stupid he was.
When Elizabeth Zott moved in with Calvin Evans, Mr. Sloane took instant notice. He talked about her constantly, his comments lewd and low like a mangy hyena. “Would you look at that,” he’d say, staring out the window at the young woman getting in her car while rubbing his naked belly in a circular motion, dispersing tiny black curls to every corner of the room. “Yeah.”
Whenever this happened, Harriet left the room. She knew she should be used to it by now, his desire for other women. It was on their honeymoon that he’d first masturbated to girlie magazines right next to her in bed. She’d gone along with it because what else was she supposed to do? Besides, she’d been told it was normal. Healthy, even. But as the magazines got raunchier, the habit grew, and now here she was, fifty-five years old, neatening his sticky stack of periodicals with a stone in her heart.
That was the other revolting thing about him. Like so many undesirable men, Mr. Sloane truly believed other women found him attractive. Harriet had no idea where that specific brand of self-confidence came from. Because while stupid people may not know they’re stupid because they’re stupid, surely unattractive people must know they’re unattractive because of mirrors.
Not that there was anything wrong with being unattractive. She was unattractive and she knew it. She also knew that Calvin Evans was
unattractive, and the sloppy dog Elizabeth brought home one day was unattractive, and there was a good chance Elizabeth’s future baby would be unattractive, too. But none of them were—or would ever be—ugly. Only Mr. Sloane was ugly, and that was because he was unattractive on the inside. In reality, the only physically beautiful thing on the entire block was Elizabeth herself, and Harriet had avoided her for that very reason. Like she’d said, pretty people were trouble.
But then Mr. Evans had died and those ridiculous men with their self-important briefcases kept stopping by Elizabeth’s house, and she realized that she might have picked up some of Mr. Sloane’s judgmental ways. That’s why she’d gone that day to check on Elizabeth. Because while she was stuck forever being Mrs. Sloane—she was a Catholic—she never wanted to turn into a Mr. Sloane. And besides, she knew what newborns were like.
Call me, she begged, peeking through her curtains at the house across the street. Call me. Call me. Call me.
On the other side of the street, Elizabeth had picked up the phone to dial Harriet Sloane at least a dozen times in the last four days, but each time she’d failed to complete the call. She’d always thought herself a capable human being, but suddenly, based solely on the small amount of time she’d spent in Harriet’s presence, she realized she was not.
She stood at the window and looked across the street. A sort of desperation gripped her. She’d had a baby and would be raising it to adulthood. My god—adulthood. From across the room, Madeline announced it was feeding time.
“But you just ate,” Elizabeth reminded her.
“WELL I DON’T REMEMBER,” Madeline screamed back, formally initiating the least fun game in the world: Guess What I Want Now.
She had another problem: every time Elizabeth looked into her daughter’s eyes, Calvin looked back. It was unnerving. The truth was, she was still mad at Calvin—the way he’d lied to her about her research funding, the way his sperm defied the contraceptive odds, the way he’d run outdoors when everyone else ran indoors in ballet slippers. She knew being mad at him was unfair, but grief is like that: arbitrary. Anyway, no one else knew how mad she was; she’d kept it to herself. Well, except during labor, when she might have shouted some regrettable things, her fingernails possibly digging into some unknown person’s forearm as the bigger contractions took hold. She remembered someone besides herself shrieking and swearing. It seemed strange and unprofessional.
So, sometime after it was all over, when a nurse came in with a stack of papers demanding to know something—how she felt?—she decided to tell her.
“Mad?” the nurse had asked.
“Yes, mad,” Elizabeth had answered. Because she was. “Are you sure?” the nurse had asked.
“Of course I’m sure!”
And the nurse, who was tired of tending to women who were never at their best—this one had practically engraved her name on her arm during labor—wrote “Mad” on the birth certificate and stalked out.
So there it was: the baby’s legal name was Mad. Mad Zott.
Elizabeth only discovered the issue a few days later at home when she’d stumbled across the birth certificate in a jumble of hospital paperwork still lumped on the kitchen table. “What’s this?” she’d said, looking at the fancy calligraphed certificate in astonishment. “Mad Zott? For god’s sake! Did I take off that much skin?”
She immediately set about to rename the baby, but there was a problem. She’d originally believed the right name would present itself the moment she saw her daughter’s face, but it hadn’t.
Now, standing in her laboratory, looking down at the small lump who lay sleeping in a large basket lined with blankets, she studied her child’s
features. “Suzanne?” she said cautiously. “Suzanne Zott?” But it didn’t feel right. “Lisa? Lisa Zott? Zelda Zott?” Nothing. “Helen Zott?” she tried. “Fiona Zott. Marie Zott?” Still nothing. She placed her hands on her hips, as if bracing herself. “Mad Zott,” she finally ventured.
The baby’s eyes flew open.
From his station beneath the table, Six-Thirty exhaled. He’d spent enough time on a playground to understand one could not name a child just anything, especially when the baby’s name had only come about from misunderstanding or, in Elizabeth’s case, payback. In his opinion, names mattered more than the gender, more than tradition, more than whatever sounded nice. A name defined a person—or in his case, a dog. It was a personal flag one waved the rest of one’s life; it had to be right. Like his name, which he’d had to wait more than a year to receive. Six-Thirty. Did it get any better than that?
“Mad Zott,” he heard Elizabeth whisper. “Dear god.”
Six-Thirty got up and padded off to the bedroom. Unbeknownst to Elizabeth, he’d been stashing biscuits under the bed for months, a practice he’d started just after Calvin died. It wasn’t because he feared Elizabeth might forget to feed him, but rather because he’d made his own important chemical discovery. When faced with a serious problem, he’d found it helped to eat.
Mad, he considered, chewing a biscuit. Madge. Mary. Monica. He withdrew another biscuit, crunching loudly. He was very fond of his biscuits—yet another triumph from the kitchens of Elizabeth Zott. It made him think, Why not name the baby after something in the kitchen? Pot. Pot Zott. Or from the lab? Beaker. Beaker Zott. Or maybe something that actually meant chemistry—something like, well, Chem? But Kim. Like Kim Novak, his favorite actress from The Man with the Golden Arm. Kim Zott.
No. Kim was too short.
And then he thought, What about Madeline? Elizabeth had read him Remembrance of Things Past—he couldn’t really recommend it—but he had understood that one part. The part about the madeleine. The biscuit. Madeline Zott? Why not?
“What do you think of the name ‘Madeline,’ ” Elizabeth asked him after finding Proust inexplicably propped open on her nightstand.
He looked back at her, his face blank.
The only problem was, getting Mad’s name changed to Madeline required a trip to city hall, and once there, a form that demanded a marriage certificate and several other details Elizabeth wasn’t very excited to share. “You know what?” Elizabeth said, meeting Six-Thirty on the stairs just outside the building. “We’ll just keep this between ourselves. She’s legally Mad, but we’ll call her Madeline and no one will be the wiser.”
Legally Mad, Six-Thirty thought. What could possibly go wrong?
The other thing about Mad: she got really mad when the Hastings people dropped by. “Colicky,” Dr. Spock would have diagnosed. But Elizabeth thought it might be that the baby was a good judge of character. Which worried her. Because what, then, would she think of her own mother’s character? A woman who didn’t speak to her family, who’d refused to marry a man she deeply loved, who’d gotten fired from her job, who spent her days teaching her dog words? Would she seem selfish or crazy or both?
She wasn’t sure, but she had a feeling that the woman across the street would know. Elizabeth wasn’t one for church, but there was something holy about Harriet Sloane. She was like a practical priest, someone to whom one could confess things—fears, hopes, mistakes—and expect in return, not a simpleton’s recipe for prayers and beads, or a psychologist’s standard “And how does that make you feel?” runaround, but actual wisdom. How to get on with the business at hand. How to survive.
She picked up the phone, unaware that Harriet’s binoculars were already confirming the dialing pattern from her front window.
“Hello?” Harriet answered casually as she forced her binoculars back between the sofa cushions. “You’ve reached the Sloane residence.”
“Harriet. This is Elizabeth Zott.” “Be right over.”