Chapter no 25 – The Average Jane

Lesson, in Chemistry

In retrospect, he probably should have let her see the set.

As the music started to play—that charming little ditty Walter had paid far too much for and that she already hated—Elizabeth strode out on the stage. He took a short, sharp breath in. She was wearing a drab dress featuring small buttons that ran all the way down to the hem, a stark white multipocketed apron cinched tightly at the waist, and a Timex wristwatch that ticked so loudly, he swore he could hear it over the band’s drumbeat. On her head sat a pair of goggles. Just over her left ear, a number-two pencil. In one hand she carried a notebook; in the other, three test tubes. She looked like a cross between a hotel maid and a bomb squad expert.

He watched as she waited for the song to finish, her eyes traveling around the set from one corner to another, lips pressed together, and shoulders tensed in a way that signaled dissatisfaction. As the last note played, she turned toward the cue card, scanned it, then turned away. Setting her notebook and test tubes on the counter, she walked to the sink, her back to the camera, and leaned into the fake window to take in the fake view.

“This is revolting,” she said directly into the microphone. The cameraman turned to look at Walter, his eyes wide.

“Remind her we’re live,” Walter hissed at him.

LIVE!!! the cameraman’s assistant hastily scribbled on a large board, holding it up for her to see.

Elizabeth read the reminder, and then holding up one finger as if to signal that this would only take another second, continued her self-guided tour, stopping to take in the kitchen’s carefully curated wall art— a Bless This House needlepoint, a depressed Jesus kneeling in prayer, an amateur painting of ships sailing on a sea—before moving on to crowded countertops, her brows arching in dismay at a sewing basket riddled with safety pins, a Mason jar filled with unwanted buttons, a ball of brown yarn, a chipped candy dish filled with peppermints, and a bread box across which Our Daily Bread was scrawled in religious script.

Just yesterday, Walter had given the set designer an A+ for his taste. “I especially love the knickknacks,” he’d told him. “They’re just right.” But today, next to her, they looked like junk. He watched as she paced to the other side of the counter, visibly blanching at the sight of hen and rooster salt and pepper shakers, hostilely eyeing the toaster’s knitted pink cozy, recoiling from a strange little ball made entirely of rubber bands. To the left of the ball was a cookie jar molded to look like a fat German woman making pretzels. She stopped abruptly, looking above her head at the large clock hanging on wires, its hands permanently fixed in the six o’clock position. SUPPER AT SIX was printed across its face in glittery type.

“Walter,” Elizabeth said, shielding her eyes as she looked out past the bright lights. “Walter, a word, please.”

“Commercial, commercial!” Walter hissed to the cameraman as she started to pick her way off the set down to where he was sitting. “Do it now! Now!

“Elizabeth,” he said, launching himself out of his chair toward her. “You can’t do this! Get back up there! We’re live!”

“We are? Well, we can’t be. The set doesn’t work.”

“Everything works, the stove, the sink, it’s all been tested, now get back up there,” he said, shooing her back with his hands.

“I meant it doesn’t work for me.

“Look,” he said. “You’re nervous. That’s why we’re taping without a live audience today—to give you a chance to settle in. But you’re still on

as in on the air—and you have a job to do. This is our pilot; things can be tweaked later.”

“So, you’re saying changes are possible,” she said, putting her hands back on her hips as she surveyed the set again. “We’ll need to make a lot of changes.”

“Okay, wait, no,” he said, worried. “To be clear, set changes are not possible. What you see represents weeks of solid research by our set designer. This kitchen is exactly what today’s woman wants.”

“Well I’m a woman, and I don’t want this.”

“I didn’t mean you,” Walter said. “I meant the average Jane.” “Average.

“You know what I mean. The normal housewife.” She made a sound like a whale spouting.

“Okay,” Walter said in a lower voice, his hand waving fruitlessly at his side. “Okay, okay, look, I understand, but remember, this isn’t just our show, Elizabeth, it’s also the station’s show, and since they pay us, it’s usually considered good form to do what they ask. You know how this works; you’ve had a job before.”

“But ultimately,” she argued, “it’s the audience for whom we all work.” “Right,” he pleaded. “Sort of. No wait—not really. It’s our job to give

people what they want even if they don’t know they want it. I explained this: it’s the afternoon programming model. Half dead, now awake, you know!”

“Another ad?” the cameraman whispered.

“Unnecessary,” she said quickly. “Sorry everyone. I’m ready now.”

“We are on the same page, aren’t we?” Walter called as she made her way back onstage.

“Yes,” Elizabeth said. “You want me to speak to the average Jane. The

normal housewife.”

He didn’t like the way she said it. “In five—” the cameraman said. “Elizabeth,” he warned.


“It’s all written out for you.”


“Just read the cue cards.”


“Please,” he begged. “It’s a great script!”

“One…and action!”

“Hello,” Elizabeth said directly into the camera. “My name is Elizabeth Zott and this is Supper at Six.

“So far so good,” Walter whispered to himself. SMILE, he mimed at her, pulling at the corners of his mouth.

“And welcome to my kitchen,” she said sternly as a disappointed Jesus peered over her left shoulder. “Today we’re going to have so much—”

She stopped when she got to the word “fun.”

An uncomfortable silence followed. The cameraman turned to look at Walter. “Go to commercial again?” he motioned.

“NO,” Walter mouthed. “NO! GODDAMMIT. SHE HAS TO DO

THIS! GODDAMMIT ELIZABETH,” he continued soundlessly as he waved his hands.

But Elizabeth seemed to be in a trance and nothing—not Walter waving his hands, or the cameraman preparing for commercial, or the makeup person mopping her own face with the sponge reserved for Elizabeth’s— could break her spell. What was wrong with her?

“MUSIC,” Walter finally mouthed to the soundman. “MUSIC.”

But before the music could start, Elizabeth’s ticking watch caught her attention and she came back to life. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Now, where were we?” She glanced at the cue cards, paused a moment more, and then suddenly pointed at the large clock above her head. “Before I get started, I’d like to advise you to please ignore the clock. It doesn’t work.”

From the producer’s chair, Walter let out a short, sharp exhale.

“I take cooking seriously,” Elizabeth continued, completely ignoring the cue cards, “and I know you do, too.” Then she pushed the sewing basket off the countertop and into an open drawer. “I also know,” she said, looking directly into the few households that had accidentally tuned her in that day, “that your time is precious. Well, so is mine. So let’s make a pact, you and I


“Mom,” a little boy called in a bored way from the TV room in Van Nuys, California, “there’s nothing on.”

“Shut it off, then,” the little boy’s mother yelled from the kitchen. “I’m busy! Play outside—”

“Mmoomm…Mmoomm…,” the little boy called again.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Petey,” a harried woman said coming into the room, her wet hands holding a half-peeled potato, the baby crying in the high chair in the kitchen, “do I have to do everything for you?” But as she reached to turn Elizabeth off, Elizabeth spoke to her.

“It is my experience that far too many people do not appreciate the work and sacrifice that goes into being a wife, a mother, a woman. Well, I am not one of them. At the end of our thirty minutes together, we will have done something worth doing. We will have created something that will not go unnoticed. We will have made supper. And it will matter.”

“What’s this?” Petey’s mother said. “Dunno,” said Petey.

“Now, let’s get started,” Elizabeth said.

Later, in her dressing room, Rosa, the hairdresser and makeup woman, stopped by to say goodbye. “For the record, I liked the hair pencil.”

“For the record?”

“Lebensmal’s been screaming at Walter for the last twenty minutes.” “Because of a pencil?”

“Because you didn’t follow the script.”

“Well, yes. But only because the cue cards were unreadable.”

“Oh,” Rosa said, visibly relieved. “That was it? The type wasn’t big enough?”

“No, no,” Elizabeth said. “I meant the cards were misleading.”

“Elizabeth,” Walter said, appearing at her dressing room door, his face red.

“Anyway,” she whispered, “goodbye forever.” She gave Elizabeth’s arm a little squeeze.

“Hello, Walter,” Elizabeth said. “I was just making up a list of a few things we’ll need to change right away.”

“Don’t hello me,” he shot back. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Why there’s nothing wrong with me. I actually thought it went rather well. I admit I stumbled at the beginning, but only because I was in shock. It won’t happen again, not after we fix the set.”

He stomped across the room and threw himself into a chair. “Elizabeth,” he said. “This is a job. You have two duties: to smile and read cue cards. That’s it. You don’t get to have an opinion about the set or the cards.”

“I think I do.” “No!”

“Anyway, I couldn’t read the cards.”

“Nonsense,” he said. “We practiced different type sizes, remember? So I know you can read the damn cards. Jesus, Elizabeth, Lebensmal’s ready to cancel the whole thing. Do you realize you’ve put both of our jobs in jeopardy?”

“I’m sorry. I’ll go speak with him right now.” “Oh no,” Walter said quickly. “Not you.”

“Why?” she said. “I want to clarify a few things, especially about the set. And as for the cue cards—again, I’m sorry, Walter. I didn’t mean I couldn’t read them; I meant my conscience wouldn’t let me read them. Because they were awful. Who wrote the script?”

He pursed his lips. “I did.”

“Oh,” she said, startled. “But those words. They didn’t sound like me at all.”

“Yes,” he said through gritted teeth. “That was intentional.

She looked surprised. “I thought you told me to be me.

“Not that you,” he said. “Not the ‘this is going to be really, really complicated’ you. Not the ‘far too many people do not appreciate the work and sacrifice that goes into being a wife, a mother, a woman’ you. No one wants to hear that stuff, Elizabeth. You have to be positive, happy, upbeat!”

“But that’s not me.”

“But it could be you.”

Elizabeth reviewed her life to date. “Not a chance.”

“Could we not argue about this,” Walter said, his heart pounding uncomfortably in his chest. “I’m the afternoon programming expert and I’ve already explained how this all works.”

“And I’m the woman,” she snapped, “speaking to an all-woman audience.”

A secretary appeared in the doorway. “Mr. Pine,” she said. “We’re getting calls about the show. I’m not sure what to do.”

“Jesus mother of god,” he said. “Complaints already.”

“It’s about the shopping list. Some confusion about tomorrow’s ingredients. Specifically, CH3COOH.”

“Acetic acid,” Elizabeth supplied. “Vinegar—it’s four percent acetic acid. I’m sorry— I probably should have written the list in layman’s terms.”

“You think?” Walter said.

“Thanks much,” the secretary said, disappearing.

“Where’d the shopping list idea come from anyway?” he demanded. “We never discussed a shopping list—especially not one written in chemical form.”

“I know,” she said, “it came to me as I was about to walk out on set. I think it’s a good idea, don’t you?”

Walter sank his head into his hands. It was a good idea; he just wasn’t willing to admit it. “You can’t do this,” he said in a muffled voice. “You can’t do whatever the hell you want.”

“I’m not doing whatever the hell I want,” Elizabeth nipped. “If I was doing whatever the hell I wanted, I’d be in a research lab. Look,” she said. “If I’m not mistaken, you’re experiencing a rise in corticosterone levels—

what you call the Afternoon Depression Zone. You should probably eat something.”

“Do not,” he said stiffly, “lecture me on the Afternoon Depression Zone.”

For the next few minutes, the two of them sat in the dressing room, one looking at the floor, the other looking at the wall. Not a word passed between them.

“Mr. Pine?” A different secretary poked her head in. “Mr. Lebensmal has a flight to catch, but he wanted me to remind you that you’ve got the rest of the week to fix ‘it.’ I’m sorry— I don’t know what ‘it’ is. Says you better make ‘it’ ”—she consulted her notes again—“ ‘sexy.’ ” Then she turned pink. “Also, there’s this.” She handed him a hand-scrawled note Lebensmal had dashed off. And what about the fucking cocktail?

“Thanks,” Walter said. “Sorry,” she said.

“Mr. Pine,” the first secretary said, appearing as the other was leaving. “It’s late— I need to go home. But the phones…”

“Go on, Paula,” he said. “I’ll handle it.” “Can I help?” Elizabeth asked.

“You’ve helped plenty enough today,” Walter said. “So, when I say, ‘No thank you,’ I actually mean no thank you.

Then he went out to the secretary’s desk, Elizabeth trailing behind, and picked up a phone. “KCTV,” he said wearily. “Yeah. Sorry. It’s vinegar.”

“Vinegar,” Elizabeth said into another line. “Vinegar.”

“Vinegar.” “Vinegar.” “Vinegar.”

He’d never gotten a single call on the clown show.

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