Chapter no 24 – The Afternoon Depression Zone

Lesson, in Chemistry

“Completely unwearable,” Elizabeth said to Walter Pine as she emerged from KCTV’s wardrobe room. “Every dress was skintight. When your tailor measured me last week, I thought he’d done an accurate job, but perhaps not. He’s older. He might need reading glasses.”

“Actually,” Walter said, shoving his hands in his pockets in an effort to look casual, “the dresses are meant to be snug. Camera adds ten pounds, so we use tight clothing to take it off. Suck it in, slim it down. You won’t believe how quickly you’ll get used to it.”

“I couldn’t breathe.”

“It’s only for thirty minutes. You can breathe as much as you want after.”

“With each inhale, our bodies initiate the blood purification process; with each exhale, our lungs release redundant carbon and hydrogen. By compressing any portion of the lungs, we put this process at risk. Clots form. Circulation drops.”

“Here’s the thing, though,” said Walter, trying a different tactic. “I know you don’t want to look fat.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“On camera—and please don’t take this the wrong way—you’re a heifer.”

Her jaw dropped. “Walter,” she stated. “Let me make something very clear to you. I will not wear that clothing.”

He clenched his teeth. Was this going to work? As he flailed around for some new way to reason with her, the TV station orchestra down the hall launched into a rehearsal of their latest little ditty. It was the Supper at Six theme song— a perky little tune he’d commissioned himself. A cross between a modern cha-cha-cha and a three-alarm fire, it was a toe-tapping tour de force that, just yesterday, his boss had enthusiastically described as Lawrence Welk on amphetamines.

“What on earth is that?” she said, gritting her teeth.

Phil Lebensmal, his boss and KCTV’s executive producer and station manager, had been very clear when he’d approved the cooking show concept.

“You know what to do,” he’d said after meeting Elizabeth Zott. “Big hair, tight dresses, homey set. The sexy-wife-loving-mother every man wants to see at the end of the day. Make it happen.”

Walter looked at Phil across the expanse of Phil’s ridiculously oversized desk. He didn’t like Phil. He was young and successful and clearly better at everything than Walter, but he was also crass. Walter didn’t like crass people. They made him feel prudish and self-conscious, as if he were the last remaining member of the Polite People, a now-extinct tribe best known for their decorum and good table manners. He passed his hand across his graying fifty-three-year-old head.

“Here’s an interesting twist, Phil. Did I tell you that Mrs. Zott can cook? I mean, really cook. She’s an actual chemist. Works in a lab with test tubes and things. Even has a master’s in chemistry, if you can imagine that. I was thinking we could play up her credentials; give housewives someone to relate to.”

“What?” Phil said, surprised. “No, Walter, Zott is not relatable, which is good. People don’t want to see themselves on TV, they want to see the people they’ll never be on TV. Pretty people, sexy people. You know how this works.” He looked at Walter, perturbed.

“Of course, of course,” Walter said, “it’s just that I thought we might shake things up a bit. Give this show more of a professional feel.”

“Professional? This is afternoon TV. You used to run a clown show in this same time slot.”

“Yes, that’s the unexpected part. Instead of clowns, we’ll do something meaningful: Mrs. Zott will teach homemakers how to make a nutritious dinner.”

“Meaningful?” Phil snapped. “What are you? Amish? As for nutritious: no. You’re killing the show before it even gets started. Look, Walter, it’s easy. Tight dresses, suggestive movements—maybe like the way she dons the potholders just so,” he demonstrated, as if he were pulling on a pair of satin gloves. “And then there’s the cocktail she mixes at the end of every show.”


“Isn’t that a great idea? I just thought of it.” “I really don’t think Mrs. Zott will go for—”

“By the way. What was that thing she said last week—about being unable to solidify helium at absolute zero. Was that supposed to be a joke?”

“Yes,” he said. “I’m pretty sure it—” “Well it wasn’t funny.”

Phil was right, it hadn’t been funny, and worse, Elizabeth hadn’t meant it to be funny. She had meant it to be one of the things she might talk about on her show. Which was a problem because no matter how often he explained the show’s concept to her, she didn’t seem to get it. “These are just normal housewives you’ll be talking to,” Walter told her. “Just your average Janes.” Elizabeth had looked back in a way that scared him.

“There’s nothing average about the average housewife,” she corrected.

“Walter,” Elizabeth was saying after the song had finally finished. “Are you listening? I think I can solve our wardrobe problem in two words. Lab coat.”


“It would give the show a more professional feel.”

“No,” he said again, thinking of Lebensmal’s very clear expectations. “Believe me. No.”

“Why not approach this scientifically? I’ll wear it for the first week, then we’ll review the results.”

“This isn’t a lab,” he explained for the billionth time. “This is a


“Speaking of the kitchen, how’s the set going?”

“It’s not quite ready. We’re still working on the lighting.”

But that wasn’t true: the set had been ready for days. From the eyelet curtains at the fake window to the various knickknacks that clogged the counters, it was the ultimate Good Housekeeping kitchen. She would hate it.

“Were you able to get the specialized instruments I need?” she asked. “The Bunsen burner? The oscilloscope?”

“About that,” he said. “The thing is, most home cooks won’t have that sort of thing. But I was able to round up nearly everything else on your list: utensils, the mixer—”

“Gas stove?” “Yes.”

“Eye wash station, of course.”

“Y-yes,” he said, thinking of the sink.

“I guess we can always add the Bunsen burner later. It’s quite useful.” “I bet.”

“What about the work surfaces?”

“The stainless steel you requested was unaffordable.”

“Well that’s odd,” she said. “Nonreactive surfaces are usually quite inexpensive.”

Walter nodded as if he were surprised too, but he wasn’t. He’d picked out the Formica countertops himself: a fun-filled laminate flecked with shiny gold confetti.

“Look,” he said. “I know our goal is about making food that matters— good-tasting, nutritious food. But we want to be careful not to alienate people. We have to make cooking look inviting. You know. Fun.”


“Because otherwise people won’t watch us.”

“But cooking isn’t fun,” she explained. “It’s serious business.” “Right,” he said. “But it could be a little fun, couldn’t it?” Elizabeth frowned. “Not really.”

“Right,” he said, “but maybe just a little fun. A smidge fun,” he said, holding up his forefinger and squeezing it next to his thumb to show just how little. “The thing is, Elizabeth, and you probably already know this, TV is governed by three hard and fast rules.”

“You mean rules of decency,” she said. “Standards.”

“Decency? Standards?” He thought of Lebensmal. “No. I meant actual rules.” He used his fingers to count. “Rule one: entertain. Rule two: entertain. Rule three: entertain.”

“But I’m not an entertainer. I’m a chemist.”

“Right,” he said, “but on TV, we need you to be an entertaining

chemist. And do you know why? I can sum it up in one word. Afternoon.” “Afternoon.”

Afternoon. Just saying the word makes me sleepy. Does it make you sleepy?”


“Well, maybe that’s because you’re a scientist. You already know about circadian rhythms.”

“Everyone knows about circadian rhythms, Walter. My four-year-old knows about circadian—”

“You mean your five-year-old,” he interrupted. “Madeline has to be at least five to be in kindergarten.”

Elizabeth waved her hand as if to move on. “You were saying about circadian rhythms.”

“Right,” he said, “As you well know, humans are biologically programmed to sleep twice a day— a siesta in the afternoon, then eight

hours of sleep at night.” She nodded.

“Except most of us skip the siesta because our jobs demand it. And when I say most of us, I really just mean Americans. Mexico doesn’t have this problem, nor does France or Italy or any of those other countries that drink even more than we do at lunch. Still, the fact remains: human productivity naturally drops in the afternoon. In TV, this is referred to as the Afternoon Depression Zone. Too late to get anything meaningful done; too early to go home. Doesn’t matter if you’re a homemaker, a fourth grader, a bricklayer, a businessman—no one is immune. Between the hours of one thirty-one and four forty-four p.m., productive life as we know it ceases to exist. It’s a virtual death zone.”

Elizabeth raised an eyebrow.

“And although I said it affects everyone,” he continued, “it’s an especially dangerous time for the homemaker. Because unlike a fourth grader who can put off her homework, or a businessman who can pretend to be listening, the homemaker must force herself to keep going. She has to get the kids down for a nap because if she doesn’t, the evening will be hell. She has to mop the floor because if she doesn’t, someone could slip on the spilled milk. She has to run to the store because if she doesn’t, there will be nothing to eat. By the way,” he said, pausing, “have you ever noticed how women always say they need to run to the store? Not walk, not go, not stop by. Run. That’s what I mean. The homemaker is operating at an insane level of hyperproductivity. And even though she’s in way over her head, she still has to make dinner. It’s not sustainable, Elizabeth. She’s going to have a heart attack or a stroke, or at the very least be in a foul mood. And it’s all because she can’t procrastinate like her fourth grader or pretend to be doing something like her husband. She’s forced to be productive despite the fact that she’s in a potentially fatal time zone—the Afternoon Depression Zone.” “It’s classic neurogenic deprivation,” Elizabeth said, nodding. “The brain doesn’t get the rest it needs, resulting in a drop in executive function and accompanied by an increase in corticosterone levels. Fascinating. But

what does this have to do with TV?”

“Everything,” he said. “Because the cure for this neuro, uh, deprivation as you call it, is afternoon programming. Unlike morning or evening programming, afternoon programming is designed to let the brain rest. Study the lineup and you’ll see it’s true: from one thirty p.m. to five p.m., TV is stuffed with kid shows, soap operas, and game shows. Nothing that requires actual brain activity. And it’s all by design: because TV executives recognize that between these hours, people are half dead.”

Elizabeth envisioned her ex-colleagues at Hastings. They were half dead.

“In a way,” Walter continued, “what we’re offering is a public service. We’re giving people—specifically the overworked housewife—the rest she needs. The children’s shows are key here: they’re designed to electronically babysit children so the mother has a chance to recuperate before her next act.”

“And by act you mean—”

“Making dinner,” he said, “which is where you come in. Your program will air at four thirty—exactly the time your audience will be emerging from the Afternoon Depression Zone. It’s a tricky time slot. Studies show that most housewives feel the greatest amount of pressure at this time of day. They have much to accomplish in a very short window of time: make dinner, set the table, locate their children—the list is long. But they’re still groggy and depressed. That is why this particular time slot comes with such great responsibility. Because whoever speaks to them now must energize them. That’s why when I tell you that your job is to entertain, I mean it sincerely. You must bring these people back to life, Elizabeth. You must wake them back up.”


“Remember that day you stormed into my office? It was afternoon. And yet despite the fact that I was in the Afternoon Depression Zone, you woke me up, and I can assure you that is nearly statistically impossible because all I do is afternoon programming. But that’s how I knew: if you had the power to make me sit up and listen, there is no doubt you can do the same for others. I believe in you, Elizabeth Zott, and I believe in your mission of

food that matters—but that’s not just making dinner. Understand this: you must make it look at least a little fun. If I wanted you to put viewers to sleep, I would have slotted you and your hot pads in at two thirty.”

Elizabeth thought for a moment. “I guess I hadn’t really thought of it that way.”

“It’s TV science,” Walter said. “Hardly anyone knows about it.”

She stood silently, weighing his words. “But I’m not entertaining,” she said after a few moments. “I’m a scientist.”

“Scientists can be entertaining.” “Name one.”

“Einstein,” Walter shot back. “Who doesn’t love Einstein?”

Elizabeth considered his example. “Well. His theory of relativity is riveting.”

“See? Exactly!”

“Although it’s also true that his wife, who was also a physicist, was never given credit for—”

“There you go, nailing our audience again. Wives! And how would you wake up these Einsteinian wives? Using TV’s time-tested waker-uppers: jokes, clothes, authority—and, of course, food. For instance, when you throw a dinner party, I bet everyone wants to come.”

“I’ve never thrown a dinner party.”

“Sure, you have,” he said. “I bet you and Mr. Zott throw them all the—” “There is no Mr. Zott, Walter,” Elizabeth interrupted. “I’m unmarried.

The truth is, I’ve never been married.”

“Oh,” Walter gasped, visibly taken aback. “Well. That is certainly interesting. But would you mind? I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, but would you mind never mentioning that to anyone? Specifically to Lebensmal, my boss? Or really—anyone?”

“I loved Madeline’s father,” she explained, her brow slightly furrowed. “It’s just that I couldn’t marry him.”

“It was an affair,” Walter said sympathetically, dropping his voice. “He was stepping out on his wife. Was that it?”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “We loved each other completely. In fact, we’d been living together for—”

“That would be another great thing never to mention,” Walter interrupted. “Never.”

“—two years. We were soulmates.”

“How nice,” he said, clearing his throat. “I’m sure it’s all in order. But still, that’s not the sort of thing we need to tell anyone. Ever. Although I’m sure you had plans to marry him at some point.”

“I didn’t,” she said quietly. “But more to the point, he died.” And with those words, her face clouded with despair.

Walter was shocked by her sudden shift in character. She had a way about her—an authority that he knew the camera would love—but she was also fragile. Poor thing. Without thinking twice, he put his arms around her. “I’m deeply sorry,” he said, pulling her in.

“So am I,” she muffled into his shoulder. “So am I.”

He flinched. Such loneliness. He patted her back as he did with Amanda, communicating, as best he could, that he wasn’t just sorry for her loss but understood it. Had he ever been in love like that? No. But now he had a very good idea what it looked like.

“I apologize,” she said, pulling away, surprised at how much she’d needed that hug.

“It’s okay,” he said gently. “You’ve been through a lot.”

“Regardless,” she said, straightening up, “I should know better than to speak of it. I’ve already been fired for it once.”

For the third time that morning, Walter flinched. When she said “it,” he wasn’t sure what she meant. Had she been fired for killing her lover? Or for being an unwed mother? Both explanations were plausible, but he far preferred the second one.

“I killed him,” she admitted softly, eliminating his preference. “I insisted he use a leash and he died. Six-Thirty has never been the same.”

“That’s terrible,” Walter said in an even lower voice, because even though he didn’t understand what she’d said about the leash or the six thirty time zone, he understood what she’d meant. She’d made a choice and it had

ended badly. He’d done the very same thing. And both of their bad choices resulted in small people who now bore the brunt of their parents’ poor choices. “I’m so very sorry.”

“I’m sorry for you, too,” she said, trying to regain her composure. “Your divorce.”

“Oh, don’t be,” he said, waving his hand, embarrassed that his lurch at love could be compared in any way to hers. “It wasn’t like your situation. Mine didn’t have anything to do with love. Amanda isn’t even technically mine in the DNA sense of things,” he blurted without meaning to. In fact, he’d only just found out three weeks ago.

His ex-wife had long insinuated that he wasn’t Amanda’s biological father, but he’d figured she’d only said it to hurt him. Sure, he and Amanda didn’t look alike, but plenty of children don’t look like their parents. Every time he held Amanda in his arms, he knew she was his; he could sense the deep, permanent biological connection. But his ex-wife’s cruel insistence ate at him, and when paternity testing finally became available, he produced a blood sample. Five days later, he knew the truth. He and Amanda were total strangers.

He’d stared at the test results, expecting to feel cheated or devastated or any of the other ways he’d guessed he was supposed to feel, but instead he’d felt completely nonplussed. The results didn’t matter at all. Amanda was his daughter and he was her father. He loved her with all his heart. Biology was overrated.

“I’d never planned to be a parent,” he told Elizabeth. “But here I am, a devoted father. Life’s a mystery, isn’t it? People who try and plan it inevitably end up disappointed.”

She nodded. She was a planner. She was disappointed.

“Anyway,” he continued. “I believe we can make something with Supper at Six. But there are some things about TV that you’re just going to, well, have to put up with. In terms of the wardrobe, I’ll tell the tailor to ease the seams. But in quid pro quo, I’d like you to practice smiling.”

She frowned.

“Jack LaLanne smiles when he’s doing push-ups,” Walter said. “That’s the way he makes hard things look fun. Study Jack’s style—he’s a master.”

At the mention of Jack’s name, Elizabeth tensed. She hadn’t watched Jack LaLanne since Calvin died, and that was partly because she blamed him—yes, she knew it wasn’t fair—for Calvin’s death. The memory of Calvin coming into the kitchen after Jack’s show filled her with a sudden warmth.

“There you go,” Walter said. Elizabeth glanced up at him. “You were almost smiling.”

“Oh,” she said. “Well, it was unintentional.”

“That’s fine. Intentional, nonintentional. Anything will do. Most of mine are forced. Including those at Woody Elementary School, where I’m headed next. I’ve been summoned by Mrs. Mudford.”

“I have too,” Elizabeth said, surprised. “I have a conference tomorrow.

Does yours concern Amanda’s reading list?”

“Reading?” he said, surprised. “They’re kindergartners, Elizabeth; they can’t read. Anyway, the issue isn’t Amanda. It’s me. She’s suspicious of me because I’m a father raising a daughter alone.”


He looked surprised. “Why do you think?”

“Oh,” she said, with sudden understanding. “She believes you’re sexually deviant.”

“I wouldn’t have put it so, so…blatantly,” Walter said, “but yes. It’s like wearing a badge that says ‘Hello! I’m a pedophile—and I babysit!’ ”

“I guess we’re both suspect, then,” Elizabeth said. “Calvin and I had sex nearly every day—completely normal for our youth and activity level—but because we weren’t married…”

“Ah,” Walter said, paling. “Well—”

“As if marriage has anything to do with sexuality—” “Ah—”

“There were times,” she explained matter-of-factly, “that I would wake up in the middle of the night filled with desire—I’m sure that’s happened to

you—but Calvin was in the middle of a REM cycle, so I didn’t disturb him. But then I mentioned it later and he was practically apoplectic. ‘No, Elizabeth,’ he said, ‘always wake me up. REM cycle or no REM cycle. Do not hesitate.’ It wasn’t until I did more reading on testosterone that I better understood the male sex drive—”

“Speaking of drive,” Walter interrupted, his face scarlet. “I wanted to remind you to park in the north lot.”

“The north lot,” she said, her hands on her hips. “That’s the one off to the left as I pull in?”


“Anyway,” she continued. “I’m sorry that Mudford has implied you’re anything other than a loving father. I very much doubt she’s read the Kinsey Reports.”

“The Kinsey—”

“Because if she had, she’d actually understand that you and I are the opposite of sexual deviants. You and I are—”

Normal parents?” he rushed. “Loving role models.”


“Kin,” she finished.

It was that last word that cemented their odd, tell-all friendship, the kind that only arises when a wronged person meets someone who has been similarly wronged and discovers that while it may be the only thing they share, it is more than enough.

“Look,” Walter said, marveling that he’d never had such a frank discussion about sex or biology with anyone, including himself. “About the wardrobe. If the tailor can’t make those dresses more breathable, choose something from your closet for now.”

“You won’t consider the lab coat idea.”

“It’s more that I want you to be you,” he said. “Not a scientist.”

She tucked a few stray hairs behind her ears. “But I am a scientist,” she argued. “It’s who I am.”

“That may be, Elizabeth Zott,” he said, not knowing how true this would turn out to be. “But it’s only a start.”

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