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Chapter no 21 – E.Z.

Lesson, in Chemistry

The Chemistry Department celebrated Elizabeth’s return with a new lab coat.

“It’s from all of us,” Donatti said. “To show how much we’ve missed you.” Surprised by the gesture, she eagerly accepted it, donning the white jacket amid scattered applause followed by a few loud guffaws. She glanced down at the stitching above the pocket. Where it had once read “E. Zott,” it now read only “E.Z.”

“Like it?” Dr. Donatti said, winking. “By the way”—he crooked his finger, indicating she should follow him to his office—“a little bird told me you’re still pursuing abiogenesis.”

Elizabeth drew back. She hadn’t told anyone about her research. The only person who might possibly know was Boryweitz, and that was only because the last time he’d been over Mad had woken from a nap, and when she’d returned, she’d found Boryweitz sitting at her desk, going through her files. “What are you doing?” she’d asked, shocked.

“Nothing, Miss Zott,” he’d said, obviously wounded by her tone.

“I have something coming out myself,” said Donatti, settling behind his desk. “It’ll be in Science Journal soon.”

“What’s the topic?”

“Nothing earth-shattering,” he replied with a shrug. “RNA stuff. You know how it is: have to put something out there every so often or pay the professional price. But I’m interested in yours. When can I read your paper?”

“I have a few things left to focus on,” she said. “If I can be allowed to concentrate on just that without distraction for the next six weeks, I should have something for you.”

“Concentrate on just your work?” he said, surprised. “That seems rather Calvin Evansesque, doesn’t it?”

At the mention of Calvin’s name, Elizabeth’s face froze.

“I’m sure you remember that’s not how this department runs,” Donatti was saying. “We help one another here. We’re a team. Like crew,” he mocked. He’d overheard her tell one of the other chemists she was still rowing. Well, maybe if she hadn’t been rowing, she’d be further on with her own work. Although he’d already gone through the files she’d brought in and he was shocked to realize she was much further along than Boryweitz seemed to realize. The man was an idiot.

“Here,” Donatti said, handing her a huge stack of papers. “Start by typing these. Also, we’re low on coffee. And talk to each of the fellas—see what kind of support they need.”

“Support?” Elizabeth said. “But I’m a chemist, not a lab tech.”

“No, you’re a lab tech,” Donatti said firmly. “You’ve been out of the game for a while now. Surely you didn’t think you could just waltz in here and get your old job back—not after years of thumb twiddling. But here’s the deal—work hard and we’ll see.”

“But this isn’t what we discussed.”

Relax, Luscious,” he drawled. “It’s not—” “What did you just call me?”

But before he could answer, his secretary reminded him of a meeting.

“Look,” he said, turning back to Elizabeth, “you enjoyed favored status when Evans was here and plenty of people haven’t forgiven you for that. This time, though, we’ll make sure everyone knows you earned your place. You’re a bright girl, Lizzie. It’s possible.”

“But I was counting on the chemist’s paycheck, Dr. Donatti. I can’t get by financially as a lab tech. I’ve got a child to support.”

“About that,” he said, waving his hand. “I’ve got some good news. I’ve asked Hastings to fund your further education.”

“Really?” she said, astonished. “Hastings would pay for my PhD?”

Donatti stood up, stretching his arms above his head as if he’d just finished a workout. “No,” he said. “What I meant was, I think you might benefit from steno school—dictation. I found a correspondence course for you,” he said, handing her a brochure. “The beauty is, you could do it at home in your free time.”

Heart rocketing around her chest, Elizabeth returned to her desk, slammed the files down, then headed directly for the ladies room, where she selected the stall farthest from the door and locked herself in. Harriet was right. What had she done? But before she could even begin to ponder the question, a banging sound came from the next stall over.

“Hello?” Elizabeth called. The banging stopped.

“Hello?” Elizabeth tried again. “Is everything all right?” “Mind your own business,” shot a voice.

Elizabeth hesitated, then tried again. “Do you need—” “Are you deaf? Leave me the hell alone!”

She paused. The voice was familiar. “Miss Frask?” she asked, picturing the Personnel secretary who’d tortured her with Calvin’s passing years before. “Is that you, Miss Frask?”

“Who the hell wants to know?” came the belligerent voice. “Elizabeth Zott. Chemistry.”

“Jesus Christ. Zott. Of all people.” There was a long moment of silence.

Miss Frask, now age thirty-three, who, for the last four years, had dutifully followed every path promising promotion—from overselling Hastings’s benefits, to spying on specific departments, to authoring an in-house gossip column called “You Heard It Here First”—had still not been promoted. In fact, she was now reporting to a new hire— a twenty-one-year-old boy fresh out of college with no discernible skills other than making chains out of paper clips. As for Eddie—the geologist she’d slept with to prove she was marriage material—he’d dumped her two years ago for a virgin. Today’s latest slap in the face: her new boy-boss had given her a seven-point plan for improvement. Item one: lose twenty pounds.

“So, you really are back,” Frask said from her stall. “Like the proverbial bad penny.”

“I beg your pardon.” “Bring the dog, too?” “I did not.”

“Turning into a rule follower are we, Zott?” “My dog is busy in the afternoons.”

“Your dog is busy in the afternoons.” Frask rolled her eyes. “He picks my child up from school.”

Frask shifted her position on her seat. That’s right—Zott had a kid now. “Boy? Girl?”

“Girl.”

Frask spun the toilet paper roll. “Sorry to hear that.

From her stall, Elizabeth studied the floor tiles. She knew exactly what Frask meant. On Mad’s first day of school, she watched in horror as the teacher, a puffy-eyed woman with a malodorous perm, attempted to pin a pink flower on Mad’s blouse. ABCS ARE FUN! it read.

“Can I have a blue flower instead?” Madeline had asked.

“No,” the teacher had said. “Blue is for boys and pink is for girls.” “No it isn’t,” Madeline said.

The teacher, a Mrs. Mudford, shifted her gaze from Madeline to Elizabeth, looking at the too-pretty mother as if to pinpoint the source of the bad attitude. She glanced at Elizabeth’s empty ring finger. Bingo.

“So, what brings you back to Hastings?” Frask asked. “Shopping for a new genius?”

“Abiogenesis.”

“Oh right,” Frask mocked. “Same old song. I’d heard the investor came back, and shazam! Here you are. I’ll say one thing for you: you’re predictable. At least you’re chasing a richer man this time. Although, between us, isn’t he a bit old for you?”

“I’m not following.” “Don’t be coy.”

Elizabeth tightened her jaw. “I wouldn’t know how to begin.”

Frask thought about this. True. Zott wasn’t the coy type. She was obtuse, oblivious, just like that day when she had to be told that Calvin had left her a parting gift— a gift that was (how was this possible?) already in school and being picked up by the dog. Really?

“The man,” Frask said, “who gave Hastings a huge grant to fund abiogenesis based on your work? Or rather, the work of Mr. E. Zott.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You know very well, Zott. Anyway, the rich man’s back, and goodness, so are you. I think you might be the only woman at Hastings—out of three thousand employees, mind you—who isn’t a secretary. I can’t imagine how that could have happened. And yet you still tried to pass yourself off as a man. Is there any level to which you won’t stoop? By the way, do you know why the institute says we ladies aren’t a good investment? It’s because we’re always running off and having babies. Like you did.”

“I was fired,” Elizabeth said, her voice filling with fury. “Thanks, in part, to women like you,” she snapped, “women who pander—”

“I do not pander—” “Who play along—”

“I do not play along—”

“Who seem to think their self-worth is based on what a man—” “How dare you—”

“No!” Elizabeth shouted, pounding on the thin steel panel that separated them. “How dare you, Miss Frask! How dare you!” She stood up, opened her stall door, strode to the sink, turning the faucet handle with such force it came off in her hand. Water spewed out, soaking her lab coat. “Dammit!” she yelled. “Dammit!”

“Oh Jesus,” Frask said, materializing at her side. “Let me.” She pushed Elizabeth to the left, then bent down and shut off the water valve under the sink. As she straightened up, the two women faced off.

“I’ve never pretended to be a man, Frask!” Elizabeth shouted as she blotted her lab coat with a paper towel.

“And I’m not a panderer!”

“I’m a chemist. Not a woman chemist. A chemist. A damn good one!” “Well, I’m a personnel expert! An almost-psychologist,” Frask shouted. “Almost-psychologist?”

“Shut up.”

“No really,” Zott said. “Almost?”

“I didn’t have a chance to finish, okay? What about you? Why aren’t you a PhD, Zott?” Frask shot back.

Elizabeth hardened, and without meaning to, revealed a fact about herself that she’d never told anyone other than a police officer. “Because I was sexually violated by my thesis advisor, then kicked out of the doctoral program,” she shouted. “You?”

Frask looked back, shocked. “Same,” she said limply.

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