Chapter no 29 – Bonding

Lessons in Chemistry

“My name is Elizabeth Zott, and this is Supper at Six.

Hands on her hips, her lips outlined in Brick Red, her thick hair pulled back into a simple French twist secured with a number-two pencil, Elizabeth leveled her gaze and looked directly into the camera.

“Exciting news,” she said. “Today we’re going to study three different types of chemical bonds: ionic, covalent, and hydrogen. Why learn about bonds? Because when you do you will grasp the very foundation of life. Plus, your cakes will rise.”

From homes all over Southern California, women pulled out paper and pencils.

“Ionic is the ‘opposites attract’ chemical bond,” Elizabeth explained as she emerged from behind the counter and began to sketch on an easel. “For instance, let’s say you wrote your PhD thesis on free market economics, but your husband rotates tires for a living. You love each other, but he’s probably not interested in hearing about the invisible hand. And who can blame him, because you know the invisible hand is libertarian garbage.”

She looked out at the audience as various people scribbled notes, several of which read “Invisible hand: libertarian garbage.”

“The point is, you and your husband are completely different and yet you still have a strong connection. That’s fine. It’s also ionic.” She paused, lifting the sheet of paper over the top of the easel to reveal a fresh page of newsprint.

“Or perhaps your marriage is more of a covalent bond,” she said, sketching a new structural formula. “And if so, lucky you, because that means you both have strengths that, when combined, create something even better. For example, when hydrogen and oxygen combine, what do we get? Water—or H2O as it’s more commonly known. In many respects, the

covalent bond is not unlike a party—one that’s made better thanks to the pie you made and the wine he brought. Unless you don’t like parties— I don’t

—in which case you could also think of the covalent bond as a small European country, say Switzerland. Alps, she quickly wrote on the easel, + a Strong Economy = Everybody Wants to Live There.

In a living room in La Jolla, California, three children fought over a toy dump truck, its broken axle lying directly adjacent to a skyscraper of ironing that threatened to topple a small woman, her hair in curlers, a small pad of paper in her hands. Switzerland, she wrote. Move.

“That brings us to the third bond,” Elizabeth said, pointing at another set of molecules, “the hydrogen bond—the most fragile, delicate bond of all. I call this the ‘love at first sight’ bond because both parties are drawn to each other based solely on visual information: you like his smile, he likes your hair. But then you talk and discover he’s a closet Nazi and thinks women complain too much. Poof. Just like that the delicate bond is broken. That’s the hydrogen bond for you, ladies— a chemical reminder that if things seem too good to be true, they probably are.”

She walked back behind the counter and, exchanging the marker for a knife, took a Paul Bunyan swing at a large yellow onion, cleaving it in two. “It’s chicken pot pie night,” she announced. “Let’s get started.”

“See?” a woman in Santa Monica demanded as she turned to her sullen seventeen-year-old daughter, the girl’s eyeliner so thick, it looked as if planes could land there. “What did I tell you? Your bond with that boy is hydrogen only. When are you going to wake up and smell the ions?”

“Not this again.”

“You could go to college. You could be something!” “He loves me!”

“He’s holding you back!”

“More after this,” Elizabeth said as the cameraman indicated a commercial break.

From his producer’s chair, Walter Pine slumped. After a massive amount of groveling, he’d managed to get Phil Lebensmal to extend Zott’s contract for another six months, but only by agreeing that sexy was in, science was out. The clock, Phil had warned, was really ticking this time. According to him, they’d been getting a lot of complaints. Walter broached the subject with Elizabeth just before the show. “We have to make a few changes,” he explained.

She’d listened, nodding her head thoughtfully, as if considering each change carefully. “No,” she said.

In addition to that little problem, Amanda had some stupid family tree assignment that demanded a current family photograph with mommy, even though mommy was long out of the picture. Worse, it insisted on celebrating the biological relationship between himself and his child, a bond that did not exist and never would. Obviously, he was planning on telling Amanda the truth and soon: that her lousy mother was never coming back and that, technically, he and she weren’t related in any way. Adopted children had the right to know. He was waiting for the right moment. Her fortieth birthday.

“Walter,” Elizabeth said as she strode toward him. “Have you heard from your insurance people? As you know, tomorrow’s show focuses on combustion, and while I continue to believe there’s really no significant danger, I— Walter?” She waved her hand in front of his face. “Walter?”

“Sixty seconds, Zott,” said the cameraman.

“It wouldn’t hurt to have a couple of extra fire extinguishers on hand. Again, I’d prefer the nitrogen propellant over the newer water and foam models, but that’s just me; I’m sure either one will do the job. Walter? Are you listening? Respond.” She frowned, then turned back to the stage. “I’ll catch you next break.”

As she made her way back up onstage, Walter turned to watch her mount the steps, her blue trousers—she was wearing trousers—belted high on the waist. Who did she think she was? Katharine Hepburn? Lebensmal would go ballistic. He turned, motioning for the makeup woman.

“Yes, Mr. Pine?” said Rosa, her hands full of small sponges. “Did you need something? Zott’s face was fine, by the way. She wasn’t glistening.”

He sighed. “She never glistens,” he said. “Despite the fact that those lights alone would sear a steak in thirty seconds, she never breaks a sweat. How is that possible?”

“It is unusual,” Rosa agreed.

“And we’re back,” he heard Elizabeth say as she pointed both hands at the camera.

“Please be normal,” whispered Walter.

“Now,” Elizabeth said to her at-home viewers, “I’m confident you used our short break to chop your carrots, celery, and onions into small disparate units, thereby creating the necessary surface area to facilitate the uptake of seasoning, as well as to shorten cooking time. So now things look like this,” she said, tipping a pan at the camera. “Next, apply a liberal amount of sodium chloride—”

“Would it kill her to say salt?” Walter hissed. “Would it?”

“I like how she uses science-y words,” Rosa said. “It makes me feel— I don’t know—capable.”

“Capable?” he said. “Capable? What happened to wanting to feel slim and beautiful? And what the hell is going on with those trousers? Where did those come from?”

“Are you okay, Mr. Pine?” Rosa asked. “Can I get you something?” “Yes,” he said. “Cyanide.”

Several more minutes passed as Elizabeth led viewers through the chemical makeup of various other ingredients, explaining, as she added each to the pan, which bonds were being created.

“There,” she said, tipping the pan to the camera again. “What do we have now? A mixture, which is a combination of two or more pure substances in which each substance retains its individual chemical

properties. In the case of our chicken pot pie, notice how your carrots, peas, onions, and celery are mixed yet remain separate entities. Think about that. A successful chicken pot pie is like a society that functions at a highly efficient level. Call it Sweden. Here every vegetable has its place. No single bit of produce demands to be more important than another. And when you throw in the additional spices—garlic, thyme, pepper, and sodium chloride

—you’ve created a flavor that not only enhances each substance’s texture but balances the acidity. Result? Subsidized childcare. Although I’m sure Sweden has its problems, too. Skin cancer at the very least.” She took a cue from the cameraman. “We’ll be right back after this station identification.”

“What was that?” Walter gasped. “What did she say?”

“Subsidized childcare,” Rosa said as she sponged his forehead. “We should get that on the ballot.” She leaned down, taking in a vein pulsing on Walter’s forehead. “Listen, why don’t I go get you some acetylsalicylic acid. It’ll—”

“What did you say?” he hissed, batting her sponge away. “Subsidized childcare.”

“No, the other—”

“Acetylsalicylic acid?”

“Aspirin,” he demanded hoarsely. “Here at KCTV, we call it aspirin. Bayer aspirin. Want to know why? Because Bayer is one of our sponsors. The people who pay our bills. Ring any bells? Say it. Aspirin.

“Aspirin,” she said. “Back in a flash.”

“Walter?” Elizabeth’s voice came abruptly from above, causing him to jump.

“Jesus, Elizabeth!” he said. “Must you sneak up on me?” “I wasn’t sneaking. Your eyes were closed.”

“I was thinking.

“About the fire extinguishers? So was I. Let’s say three. Two will be sufficient, but three should almost completely eradicate any possibility of tragedy. Up to, or slightly beyond, ninety-nine percent.”

“My god,” he shuddered to himself as he wiped his damp palms on his pants. “Is this a nightmare? Why can’t I wake up?”

“You’re wondering about the other one percent,” Elizabeth said. “Well don’t. That tiny amount is mostly act-of-God stuff—earthquakes, tsunamis

—things we can’t possibly anticipate because the science isn’t there yet.” She paused, straightening her belt. “Walter, don’t you find it interesting that people even use that term ‘act of God’? Considering that most want to believe that God is about lambs and love and babies in mangers, and yet this same so-called benevolent being smites innocent people left and right, indicating an anger management problem—maybe even manic depression. In a psychiatric ward, such a patient would be subjected to electroshock therapy. Which I don’t favor. Electroshock therapy is still largely unproven. But isn’t it interesting that acts of God and electroshock therapy share so much in common? In terms of being violent, cruel—”

“Sixty seconds, Zott.”

“—unforgiving, barbarous—” “Jesus, Elizabeth, please.”

“Anyway, let’s say three. Every woman should know how to put out a fire. We’ll start with the smothering technique, then when that fails, go to nitrogen.”

“Forty seconds, Zott.”

“And what is with the trousers?” Walter said, his teeth clenched so tightly, the words barely emerged.

“What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Do you like them? You must. You wear them all the time and I can see why. They’re very comfortable. Don’t worry; I plan to give you full credit.”

“No! Elizabeth, I never—”

“Here’s your aspirin, Mr. Pine,” Rosa interrupted, appearing at his side. “And Zott—let me take a quick look at your—good, good—turn your face the other way now—good—amazing, really. Okay, you’re all set.”

“Zott, in ten,” called the cameraman. “Are you sick, Walter?”

“Have you seen the family tree project?” he whispered. “Eight seconds, Zott.”

“You look pale, Walter.”

“The tree,” he barely eked out.

“Free? But I thought you said I couldn’t give things away anymore.”

Elizabeth climbed back up onstage and turning to the camera said, “And we’re back.”

“I don’t know what you think you gave me,” Walter snapped at Rosa, “but it’s not working.”

“It takes time.”

“Which I don’t have,” he said. “Give me the bottle.” “You’ve already taken the max.”

“Oh really?” he snapped, shaking the bottle. “Then explain why there are still some in here.”

“Now pour your version of Sweden,” Elizabeth was saying, “into the starch, lipid, and protein molecule configuration you rolled out earlier— your piecrust—the one whose chemical bonds were enabled using the water molecule, H2O, and through which you created the perfect marriage of stability and structure.” She paused, her now-floured hands pointing at a

piecrust filled with vegetables and chicken.

“Stability and structure,” she repeated, looking out at the studio audience. “Chemistry is inseparable from life—by its very definition, chemistry is life. But like your pie, life requires a strong base. In your home, you are that base. It is an enormous responsibility, the most undervalued job in the world that, nonetheless, holds everything together.”

Several women in the studio audience nodded vigorously.

“Take a moment now to admire your experiment,” Elizabeth continued. “You’ve used the elegance of chemical bonding to construct a crust that will both house and enhance the flavor of your constituents. Consider your filling one more time, then ask yourself: What does Sweden want? Citric acid? Maybe. Sodium chloride? Probably. Adjust. When you’re satisfied, lay your second crust on top like a blanket, crimping the edges to create a seal. Then make a few short slashes across the top, creating a vent. The purpose of the vent is to give the water molecule the space it needs to

convert to steam and escape. Without that vent, your pie is Mount Vesuvius. To protect your villagers from certain death, always slash.”

She picked up a knife and made three short slits on top. “There,” she said. “Now pop it in your oven at three hundred seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit. Bake for approximately forty-five minutes.” She looked up at the clock.

“It looks like we have a little extra time,” she said. “Perhaps I could take a question from the studio audience.” She looked at the cameraman, who held a finger up to his throat as if to slit it. “NO, NO, NO,” he mouthed.

“Hello,” she said, pointing at a woman in the front row, her glasses perched atop a stiff hairdo, her thick legs swathed in support hose.

“I’m Mrs. George Fillis from Kernville,” the woman said nervously as she stood up, “and I’m thirty-eight years old. I just wanted to say how much I enjoy your show. I . . I can’t believe how much I’ve learned. I know I’m not the brightest bulb,” she said, her face pink with shame, “that’s what my husband always says—and yet last week when you said osmosis was the movement of a less concentrated solvent through a semipermeable membrane to another more concentrated solvent, I found myself wondering if…well…”

“Go on.”

“Well, if my leg edema might not be a by-product of faulty hydraulic conductivity combined with an irregular osmotic reflection coefficient of plasma proteins. What do you think?”

“A very detailed diagnosis, Mrs. Fillis,” Elizabeth said. “What kind of medicine do you practice?”

“Oh,” the woman stumbled, “no, I’m not a doctor. I’m just a housewife.”

“There isn’t a woman in the world who is just a housewife,” Elizabeth said. “What else do you do?”

“Nothing. A few hobbies. I like to read medical journals.” “Interesting. What else?”


“Clothes?” “Bodies.”

“Wound closures?”

“Yes. I have five boys. They’re always tearing holes in themselves.” “And when you were their age you envisioned yourself becoming—” “A loving wife and mother.”

“No, seriously—”

“An open-heart surgeon,” the woman said before she could stop herself. The room filled with a thick silence, the weight of her ridiculous dream hanging like too-wet laundry on a windless day. Open-heart surgery? For a moment it seemed as if the entire world was waiting for the laughter that should follow. But then from one end of the audience came a single unexpected clap—immediately followed by another—and then another— and then ten more—and then twenty more—and soon everyone in the audience was on their feet and someone called out, “Dr. Fillis, heart

surgeon,” and the clapping became thunderous.

“No, no,” the woman insisted above the noise. “I was only kidding. I can’t actually do that. Anyway, it’s too late.”

“It’s never too late,” Elizabeth insisted. “But I couldn’t. Can’t.”


“Because it’s hard.”

“And raising five boys isn’t?”

The woman touched her fingertips to the small beads of sweat dotting her forehead. “But where would someone like me even start?”

“The public library,” Elizabeth said. “Followed by the MCATs, school, and residency.”

The woman suddenly seemed to realize that Elizabeth took her seriously. “You really think I could do it?” she said, her voice trembling.

“What’s the molecular weight of barium chloride?” “208.23.”

“You’ll be fine.”

“But my husband—”

“Is a lucky man. By the way, it’s Free Day, Mrs. Fillis,” Elizabeth said, “something my producer just invented. To show our support for your fearless future, you’ll be taking home my chicken pot pie. Come on up and get it.”

Amid roaring applause, Elizabeth handed the now-determined-looking Mrs. Fillis the foil-covered pie. “We’re officially out of time,” Elizabeth said. “But I hope you’ll tune in tomorrow as we explore the world of kitchen conflagrations.”

Then she looked right through the camera lens, and almost as if she divined it, directly into the astonished faces of Mrs. George Fillis’s five children sprawled in front of the TV in Kernville, their eyes open wide, their mouths agape, as if they had just seen their mother for the very first time.

“Boys, set the table,” Elizabeth commanded. “Your mother needs a moment to herself.”

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