Chapter no 26 – The Funeral

Lessons in Chemistry

“Hello, my name is Elizabeth Zott, and this is Supper at Six.”

From the producer’s chair, Walter squeezed his eyes shut. “Please,” he whispered. “Please, please, please.” It was the fifteenth day of broadcasting and he was exhausted. Over and over again he’d explained that just as he didn’t get to choose the desk he sat behind, neither did she get to choose the kitchen she cooked in. It was nothing personal; sets, like desks, were selected based on research and budgets. But every time he’d made this argument, she’d nod her head as if she understood and then say, “Yes— but.” And then they’d start all over again. Same with the script. He told her that her job was to engage the audience, not bore them. But with all her tiresome chemical asides, she was so boring. That’s why he’d decided it was finally time to add the live audience. Because he knew real people sitting just twenty feet away would instantly teach her the peril of being dull.

“Welcome to our first live audience show,” Elizabeth said.

So far so good.

“Every afternoon, Monday through Friday, we’ll make dinner together.”

Exactly what he had written.

“Starting with tonight’s supper: spinach casserole.”

Bronco busted. She was following orders.

“But first we need to clean up our work space.” His eyes flew open as she picked up the ball of brown yarn and tossed it into the audience.

No, no, he begged silently. The cameraman glanced back at him as the audience erupted in nervous laughter.

“Anyone need some rubber bands?” she asked, holding up the rubber band ball. Several hands went up, so she tossed that into the audience as well.

Dumbstruck, he gripped the arms of his canvas folding chair.

“I like having room to work,” she said. “It reinforces the idea that the work you and I are about to do is important. And today I have a lot to do and could use some help getting even more room. Could anyone use a cookie jar?”

To Walter’s horror, almost all the hands went up, and before he knew it, people were milling about the set as Elizabeth encouraged them to take whatever they wanted. In less than a minute, every single item was gone— even the wall art. The only thing that remained was the fake window and the large clock.

“Okay,” she said in a serious tone as the audience returned to their seats. “Now let’s get started.”

Walter cleared his throat. One of the first rules of television, other than to entertain, is to pretend that no matter what happens, it was all part of the plan. This is what TV hosts are trained to do, and this is what Walter, who had never been a host, decided in that moment to try. He sat up in his canvas chair and leaned forward as if he’d orchestrated this total breach of TV conduct himself. But, of course, he hadn’t, and everyone knew he hadn’t, and they all registered his impotence in their specific ways: the cameraman shook his head, the sound guy sighed, the set designer gave Walter the finger from stage right. Meanwhile, Elizabeth was up onstage hacking at a huge pile of spinach with the biggest knife he’d ever seen.

Lebensmal was going to kill him.

He closed his eyes for a few moments, listening to the stirrings from the studio audience: the seat shifting, the small coughs. From off in the

distance, he heard Elizabeth talking about the role potassium and magnesium play in the body. The cue card he’d written for this particular segment had been among his favorites: Isn’t spinach a nice color? Green. It reminds me of springtime. She’d skipped right over it.

“…many believe spinach makes us strong because it contains almost as much iron as meat. But the truth is, spinach is high in oxalic acid, which inhibits iron absorption. So when Popeye implies he’s getting strong from spinach, don’t believe him.”

Fantastic. Now she was calling Popeye a liar.

“Still, spinach offers plenty of nutritive value and we’ll be talking about that and more,” she said, brandishing her knife into the camera, “just after this station break.”

Jesus Fucking Christ. He didn’t bother to get up.

“Walter,” she said at his elbow mere moments later. “What did you think? I took your advice. I engaged the audience.”

He turned to look at her, his face wooden.

“It was exactly like you’ve been saying: entertain. Knowing I needed more counter space, I thought of baseball—the way the vendors throw the peanuts at the crowd? And it worked.”

“Yes,” he said flatly. “And then you invited everyone to help themselves to the home plate, and the bats, and the gloves, and whatever else they could find lying around.”

She looked surprised. “You sound mad.”

“Thirty seconds, Mrs. Zott,” the cameraman said.

“No, no,” he said calmly. “I’m not mad. I’m furious.” “But you said to entertain.”

“No. What you did was you took things that didn’t belong to you and then you gave them away.”

“But I needed the space.”

“On Monday prepare to die,” he said. “First me, then you.” She turned away.

“I’m back,” he heard her say in an irritated voice as the audience clapped its approval. Thankfully, he heard very little after that, but that was

only because his stomach hurt and his heart was pinging about his chest in a way that he hoped indicated something very serious. He closed his eyes to hasten his death—stroke or heart attack, he’d take either one.

He looked up to see Elizabeth waving her arm around the empty kitchen. “Cooking is chemistry,” she was saying. “And chemistry is life. Your ability to change everything—including yourself—starts here.”

Good god.

His secretary bent down and whispered something about Lebensmal wanting to see him first thing in the morning. He closed his eyes again. Relax, he told himself. Breathe.

From behind his eyelids, he saw something he did not care to see. It was him at a funeral—his funeral—and lots of people in colorful clothing were milling about. He overheard someone—his secretary?—telling the story of how he died. It was a boring story and he didn’t like it, but it fit his afternoon programming profile. He listened carefully, hoping to hear news of his life mixed with compliments, but mostly people said things like, “So, what are you doing this weekend?”

From off in the distance, he heard Elizabeth Zott talking about the importance of work. She was sermonizing again, filling the funeralgoers’ heads with ideas of self-respect. “Take risks,” she was saying. “Don’t be afraid to experiment.”

Don’t be like Walter, she meant.

Weren’t people supposed to wear black to funerals?

“Fearlessness in the kitchen translates to fearlessness in life,” Zott claimed.

Who’d asked her to give his eulogy anyway? Phil? Rude. And rich considering that the only risk he, Walter Pine, had ever taken—hiring her— was turning out to be the reason for his premature death. Take-risks-don’t-be-afraid-to-experiment my ass, Zott. Who was dead here?

He continued to hear her voice in the background accompanied by the insistent thwack of a knife. Then after another ten minutes or so came her closing remarks.

“Children, set the table. Your mother needs a moment to herself.”

In other words, enough about dead Walter—back to me.

The mourners clapped enthusiastically. Time to hit the bar.

There wasn’t much after that. Unfortunately, his imagined death was a lot like his life. It occurred to him that “bored to death” might not just be a phrase.

“Mr. Pine?”


He felt a hand touch his shoulder. “Should I call a doctor?” the first voice asked.

“Maybe,” the other voice said.

He opened his eyes to find Zott and Rosa standing next to him. “We think you may have fainted,” Zott said.

“You were slumped over,” Rosa added.

“Your pulse is elevated,” Elizabeth said, her fingers on his wrist. “Should I call a doctor?” Rosa asked again.

“Walter, have you eaten? When was the last time you ate?”

“I’m fine,” Walter said hoarsely. “Go away.” But he didn’t feel very good.

“He didn’t eat lunch,” Rosa said. “Took nothing from the cart. And we know he hasn’t had dinner.”

“Walter,” Elizabeth said, taking charge. “Take this home.” She placed a large baking dish in his hands. “It’s the spinach casserole I just made. Put it in the oven at three hundred seventy-five degrees for forty minutes. Can you do that?”

“No,” he said, sitting up. “I can’t. And anyway, Amanda hates spinach, so again, NO.” And then realizing he sounded like a petulant child, he turned to the hair and makeup woman (what was her name?) and said, “I’m so sorry to have worried you”—slurring a mixture of possible first names

—“but I’m completely fine. You have a nice night, now.”

To prove how fine he was, he got up from his chair and walked unsteadily to his office, waiting until he was sure they’d both left the building before he left himself. But when he got to the parking lot, he found the casserole sitting on the hood of his car. Bake at 375 degrees for forty minutes, the note said.

When he got home, and only because he was tired, he stuck the damn thing in the oven, and not too long after that, sat down to dinner with his young daughter.

Three bites later, Amanda declared it to be the best thing she’d ever eaten.

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