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Chapter no 30 – 99 Percent

Lesson, in Chemistry

“Mad,” Elizabeth began carefully a week later, “Mrs. Mudford called me at work today. Something about an inappropriate family photo?”

Madeline took a sudden interest in a scab on her knee.

“And attached to this photo was a family tree,” Elizabeth said gently. “In which you claim to be a direct descendant of”—she paused, consulting a list—“Nefertiti, Sojourner Truth, and Amelia Earhart. Does that sound familiar?”

Madeline looked up innocently. “Not really.”

“And the tree includes an acorn labeled ‘Fairy Godmother.’ ” “Huh.”

“And at the bottom someone wrote, ‘Humans are animals.’ That was underlined three times. And then it says, ‘Inside, humans are genetically ninety-nine percent the same.’ ”

Madeline looked up at the ceiling.

“Ninety-nine percent?” Elizabeth said. “What?” Madeline said.

“That’s inaccurate.” “But—”

“In science, accuracy matters.” “But—”

“The fact is, it can be as high as ninety-nine point nine percent. Ninety-nine point nine.” Then she stopped and wrapped her arms around her

daughter. “It’s my fault, sweetheart. With the exception of pi, we really haven’t covered decimals yet.”

“Sorry to intrude,” Harriet called as she let herself in the back door. “Phone messages. Forgot to leave them.” She plunked a list down in front of Elizabeth and turned to go.

“Harriet,” Elizabeth said, scanning the list. “Who’s this one? The reverend from First Presbyterian?”

Madeline’s hair rose on her arms.

“It sounded like one of those church drum-up-the-business calls. He asked for Mad. Probably working from a bad list. Anyway, this is the one I wanted to make sure you saw,” she said, tapping the list. “The LA Times.

“They’ve been calling at work, too,” Elizabeth said. “They want an interview.”

“An interview!”

“You’re gonna be in the newspaper again?” Mad said, worried. Her family had been in the newspaper twice: once when her father died, and once when her father’s gravestone was blown to bits by a stray bullet. Not a great track record.

“No, Mad,” Elizabeth said. “The person who wants to interview me isn’t even a science reporter; he writes for the women’s page. He’s already told me he has no interest in talking about chemistry, just dinner. Clearly, he doesn’t understand you can’t separate the two. And I suspect he also wants to ask questions about our family, even though our family is none of his business.”

“Why not?” Madeline asked. “What’s wrong with our family?”

From under the table, Six-Thirty lifted his head. He hated that Mad thought there might be something wrong with their family. As for Nefertiti and the others, it wasn’t just Mad’s wishful thinking—it was accurate in one critical sense: all humans shared a common ancestor. How could Mudford not know this? He was a dog and even he knew this. By the way and in case anyone was interested, he’d just learned a new word: “diary.” It was a place where one wrote vicious things about one’s family and friends and hoped to god they never saw. With “diary” his word count was now up to 648.

“See you both in the morning,” Harriet called, slamming the door behind her.

“What’s wrong with our family, Mom?” Madeline repeated.

“Nothing,” Elizabeth said sharply, clearing the table. “Six-Thirty, help me with the fume hood. I want to try cleaning the dishes using a hydrocarbon vapor.”

“Tell me about Dad.”

“I’ve told you everything, sweetheart,” she said, her face suddenly lit with affection. “He was a brilliant, honest, loving man. A great rower and gifted chemist. He was tall and gray eyed, like you, and he had very large hands. His parents died in an unfortunate collision with a train, and his aunt hit a tree. He went to live in a boys home, where…” She paused, her blue-and-white-checked dress swaying at her calves as she reconsidered her dishwashing experiment. “Do me a favor, Mad, and put on this oxygen mask. And Six-Thirty, let me help you with your goggles. There,” she said, adjusting everyone’s straps. “Anyway, then your father went on to Cambridge where he—”

“Oys ome,” Mad attempted through the mask.

“We’ve been over this, honey. I don’t know much about the boys home.

Your father didn’t like to talk about it. It was private.”

“Pri-ate? Or se-ret?” she attempted through the mask.

“Private,” her mother said firmly. “Sometimes bad things happen. This is a fact of life. In terms of the boys home, your father did not talk about it because I suspect he knew dwelling on it would not change it. He was raised without a family, without parents he could count on, without the protection and love every child is entitled to. But he persevered. Often the best way to deal with the bad,” she said, feeling for her pencil, “is to turn it on end—use it as a strength, refuse to allow the bad thing to define you. Fight it.”

The way she said it—like a warrior—made Madeline worry. “Have bad things happened to you too, Mom?” she tried to ask. “Besides dad dying?” But the dish cleaning experiment was in full swing, and her question was lost in the cocoon of the mask and the ringing of the phone.

“Yes, Walter,” Elizabeth said a moment later. “I hope I’m not disturbing anything—”

“Not at all,” she said, despite an unusual humming in the background. “How can I help?”

“Well, I was calling about two things. The first is the family tree assignment. I was just wondering—”

“Yes,” she confirmed. “We’re in trouble.”

“Us too,” he said miserably. “She seemed to know the names I put on the branches were complete fabrications. Is that what you did, too?”

“No,” Elizabeth said. “Mad made a math error.” He paused, not understanding.

“I have to see Mudford tomorrow,” she continued. “By the way, I wasn’t sure if you’d heard, but both girls have been assigned to her classroom again in the fall. She’s teaching first grade, and when I say ‘teaching’ of course I’m being ironic. I’ve already registered a complaint.”

“Lord,” Walter sighed.

“What’s the second thing, Walter?”

“It’s Phil,” he said. “He’s, uh…he’s not…happy.”

“Nor am I,” Elizabeth said. “How did he ever become executive producer? He lacks vision, leadership, and manners. And the way he treats the women at the station is contemptible.”

“Well,” Walter said, thinking how, when discussing Elizabeth a few weeks back, Lebensmal had actually spat at him. “I agree that he can be a bit of a character.”

“That’s not character, Walter. That’s degradation. I’m going to register a complaint with the board.”

Walter shook his head. Again with the complaints. “Elizabeth, Phil’s on

the board.”

“Well, someone needs to be made aware of his behavior.”

“Surely,” Walter said with a sigh, “surely you know by now that the world is filled with Phils. Our best bet is to try and get along. Make the best

of a bad situation. Why can’t you just do that?”

She tried to think of a good reason to make the best of Phil Lebensmal.

No—she couldn’t come up with a single thing.

“Look, I have an idea,” he continued. “Phil’s been courting a new potential sponsor— a soup manufacturer. He wants you to use the soup on your show, like in a casserole. Do that—attract a big sponsor—and I think he’ll cut us some slack.”

“A soup manufacturer? I only work with fresh ingredients.”

“Can you at least try to meet me halfway?” he begged. “It’s one can of soup. Think of the others—all the people who work on your show. We all have families to feed, Elizabeth; we all need to keep our jobs.”

From her end of the phone came silence, as if she were weighing his words. “I’d like to meet with Phil face-to-face,” she said. “Clear the air.”

“No,” Walter emphasized. “Not that. Never that.”

She exhaled sharply. “Fine. Today is Monday. Bring the can in on Thursday. I’ll see what I can do.”

But the week steadily got worse. The next day—Tuesday—Mudford’s tree assignment revelations were the talk of the school: Madeline had been born out of wedlock; Amanda didn’t have a mother; Tommy Dixon’s father was an alcoholic. Not that any of the children themselves cared about these facts, but Mudford, her mean eyes wet with excitement, ate up the data like a hungry virus, then fed it to the other mothers, who spread it around school like frosting.

On Wednesday, someone surreptitiously shoved a sheet of paper listing the compensation of every KCTV employee under Elizabeth’s door. Elizabeth stared at the figures. She made a third of what the sports guy did? A guy who was on the air less than three minutes a day and whose only skill involved reading scores? Worse, apparently there was something called “profit-sharing” at KCTV. But only the male employees had been invited to take part.

But it was the way Harriet looked when she arrived on Thursday morning that made Elizabeth rage.

She’d just finished tucking a note into Madeline’s lunch box—Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, but it can be rearranged. In other words, don’t sit next to Tommy Dixon—when Harriet sat down at the table, and despite the darkness of the morning, did not remove her sunglasses.

“Harriet?” Elizabeth said, instantly alarmed.

In a voice that was trying very hard to make it seem like it was no big deal, Harriet explained that Mr. Sloane had been out of sorts last night. She’d tossed some of his girlie magazines, the Dodgers had lost, he didn’t approve of the way Elizabeth encouraged that woman to be a heart surgeon. He winged an empty beer bottle at her and she’d fallen back like a target at a shooting range.

“I’m calling the police,” Elizabeth said, reaching for the phone.

“No,” Harriet said, resting her hand on Elizabeth’s arm. “They won’t do anything and I refuse to give him that satisfaction. Besides, I belted him with my purse.”

“I’m going over there right now,” Elizabeth said. “He needs to understand this sort of behavior will not be tolerated.” She stood up. “I’ll get my baseball bat.”

“No. If you attack him, the police will be all over you, not him.”

Elizabeth thought about this. Harriet was right. Her jaw tensed and she felt the too-familiar rage from her own police encounter years ago. No statement of regret, then? She reached back and felt for her pencil.

“I can take care of myself. He doesn’t scare me, Elizabeth; he disgusts me. There’s a difference.”

Elizabeth knew this feeling exactly. She bent down and put her arms around Harriet. Despite their friendship, the two women rarely touched. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you,” Elizabeth said, pulling her close. “You know that, don’t you?”

Harriet, surprised, looked up at Elizabeth, tears forming. “Well me, too. Ditto.” Then the older woman finally pulled away. “It’ll be okay,” Harriet promised, wiping her face. “Just let it go.”

But Elizabeth was not the type of person who let things go. When she pulled out of the driveway five minutes later, she’d already formulated a plan.

“Hello, viewers,” Elizabeth said three hours later. “And welcome back. See this?” She held a soup can close to the camera. “It’s a real time-saver.”

From his producer’s chair, Walter gasped in gratitude. She was using the soup!

“That’s because it’s full of chemicals,” she said, tossing it with a clunk into a nearby garbage can. “Feed enough of it to your loved ones and they’ll eventually die off, saving you tons of time since you won’t have to feed them anymore.”

The cameraman turned to look at Walter, confused. Walter glanced down at his watch as if he’d forgotten an important appointment, then got up and walked out, making his way directly to the parking lot, where he got in his car and drove home.

“Luckily, there are much faster ways to kill off your loved ones,” she continued, walking to her easel, where a selection of mushroom drawings was on display, “and mushrooms are an excellent place to start. If it were me, I’d opt for the Amanita phalloides,” she said, tapping one of the drawings, “also known as the death cap mushroom. Not only does its poison withstand high heat, making it a go-to ingredient for a benign-looking casserole, but it very much resembles its nontoxic cousin, the straw mushroom. So if someone dies and there’s an inquiry, you can easily play the dumb housewife and plead mistaken mushroom identity.”

Phil Lebensmal looked up from his desk at one of the screens in his TV-littered office. What did she just say?

“The great thing about poisonous mushrooms,” she continued, “is how easily they adapt to different forms. If not a casserole, why not try a stuffed mushroom? Something you can share with your next-door neighbor—the

one who goes out of his way to make life miserable for his wife. He’s already got one foot in the grave. Why not help him with the other?”

At this, someone in the audience let out a whoop of unexpected laughter and a clap. Meanwhile, the camera also managed to capture several pair of hands carefully writing down the words “Amanita phalloides.”

“Of course, I’m only kidding about poisoning your loved ones,” Elizabeth said. “I’m sure your husbands and children are all wonderful human beings who always go out of their way to tell you how much they appreciate your hard work. Or, in the unlikely event that you work outside the home, that your fair-minded boss ensures you’re paid the same wage as your male counterpart.” This also got even more laughs and claps, all of which followed her as she walked back behind the counter. “It’s broccoli-mushroom casserole night,” she said, holding up a basket of—maybe?— straw mushrooms. “Let’s get started.”

It’s fair to say no one in California touched their dinners that night.

“Zott,” Rosa, the makeup woman, said on her way out. “Lebensmal wants to see you at seven.”

Seven?” Elizabeth blanched. “Obviously the man has no children. By the way, have you seen Walter? I think he’s mad at me.”

“He left early,” Rosa said. “Look, I don’t think you should go see Lebensmal by yourself. I’ll come with you.”

“I’m fine, Rosa.”

“Maybe you should call Walter first. He never lets any of us meet with Lebensmal alone.”

“I know,” Elizabeth said. “Don’t worry.” Rosa hesitated, looking at the clock.

“Go home. It’s not a big deal.”

“At least call Walter first,” Rosa said. “Let him know.” She turned to gather her things. “By the way, I loved tonight’s show. It was funny.”

Elizabeth looked up, her eyebrows raised. “Funny?”

A few minutes before seven, after finishing her notes for tomorrow’s show, Elizabeth hefted her large bag to her shoulder and walked the empty hallways of KCTV to Lebensmal’s office. She knocked twice, then let herself in. “You wanted to see me, Phil?”

Lebensmal was sitting behind an enormous desk covered with stacks of papers and half-eaten food, four huge televisions broadcasting loud reruns in a ghostly black and white, the air stale with cigarette smoke. One set was airing a soap opera; another, Jack LaLanne; still another a kids’ program; and the fourth, Supper at Six. She’d never watched her own show before, never once experienced the sound of her own voice coming through a speaker. It was horrible.

“It’s about time,” Lebensmal said irritably, as he stubbed a cigarette into a decorative cut-glass bowl. He pointed to a chair indicating that Elizabeth should sit, then huffed to the door and slammed it shut, pressing the lock button.

“I was told seven,” she said.

“Did I tell you to speak?” he snapped.

From the left she heard herself explain the interaction of heat and fructose. She cocked her head toward the set. Had she gotten the pH right? Yes, she had.

“Do you know who I am?” he demanded from across the room. But the blaring TVs muddled his words.

“Do I know about…yams?”

“I said,” he spoke louder this time, as he returned to his desk, “do you know who I am?”

“You are Phil LEBENSMAL,” Elizabeth said loudly. “Would you mind if I turned the TVs off? It’s hard to hear.”

“Don’t sass me!” he said. “When I say do you know who I am, I mean

do you know who I am?

For a moment she looked confused. “Again, you are Phil Lebensmal.

But if you like, we could double-check your driver’s license.”

His eyes narrowed.

“Waist bends!” shouted Jack LaLanne. “Dance party!” laughed a clown.

“I never loved you,” confessed a nurse.

“Acidic pH levels,” she heard herself say.

“I am Mister Lebensmal, executive producer of—”

“I’m sorry, Phil,” she said, gesturing at the television speaker closest to her, “but I really can’t—” She reached for the volume control.

“DO NOT,” he boomed, “TOUCH MY TELEVISONS!”

He rose, picking up a stack of file folders, and marched across the room, planting himself in front of her, his legs spread wide like a tripod.

“You know what these are?” he said, wagging the folders in her face. “File folders.”

“Don’t get smart with me. They’re Supper at Six audience viewer questionnaires. Ad sales figures. Nielsen ratings.”

“Really?” she said. “I’d love to take—” But before she could take a look, he snatched them away.

“As if you’d even know how to interpret the findings,” he said sharply. “As if you have any idea what any of this means.” He slapped the folders against his thigh, then strode back to his desk. “I’ve let this nonsense go on far too long. Walter has failed to rein you in but I won’t. If you want to keep your job, you will wear what I choose, mix the cocktails I want, and make dinner using normal words. You will also—”

He stopped in midsentence, put off by her reaction—or rather, nonreaction. It was the way she sat in her chair. Like a parent waiting for her child to finish his tantrum.

“On second thought,” he spat impulsively, “you’re fired!” And when she still didn’t react, he got up and stomped over to the four TVs and switched them all off, breaking two knobs in the process. “EVERYONE IS FIRED!” he bellowed. “You, Pine, and anyone and everyone who has had even the smallest role in aiding and abetting your crap. You’re all OUT!” Breathing hard, he went back to his desk and flung himself in his chair,

awaiting the only two reactions from her that could or should inevitably follow: crying or apologies, preferably both.

Elizabeth nodded in the now-quiet room as she smoothed the front of her trousers. “You’re firing me because of tonight’s poison mushroom episode. As well as any other person associated with the show.”

“That’s right,” he emphasized, unable to hide his surprise that his threat had not impressed her. “Everyone’s out and it’s because of you. Jobs lost. All because of you. Done.” He sat back and waited for her to grovel.

“So to clarify,” she said, “I’m being fired because I won’t wear your clothes and smile into your camera, but also because—is this correct?— I don’t know ‘who you are.’ And to further make your point, you’re firing everyone associated with Supper at Six even though these people also work on four or five other shows for which they’d suddenly be in absentia. Meaning that those other shows will also be affected to the point where they will not be able to air.”

Frustrated by her obvious logic, Phil tensed. “I can have those positions filled in twenty-four hours,” he said, snapping his fingers. “Less.”

“And this is your final decision, despite the show’s success.”

Yes, it’s my final decision,” he said. “And no, the show is not a success

—that’s the point.” He picked up the folders again and waved them. “Complaints pour in every day—about you, your opinions…your science. Our sponsors are threatening to walk. That soup manufacturer—they’ll probably sue us.”

“Sponsors,” she said, tapping her fingertips together as if glad for the reminder. “I’ve been meaning to speak with you about them. Acid reflux tablets? Aspirin? Products like these seem to imply the show’s dinners aren’t going to sit well.”

“Because they don’t,” Phil shot back. He’d already crunched more than ten antacid tablets in the last two hours and his insides were still in an uproar.

“As for the complaints,” she acknowledged. “We’ve had a few. But they’re nothing compared to the letters of support. Which I didn’t expect. I

have a history of not fitting in, Phil, but I’m starting to think that not fitting in is why the show works.”

“The show does not work,” he insisted. “It’s a disaster!” What was happening here? Why did she keep talking as if she wasn’t fired?

“Feeling like one doesn’t fit is a horrible feeling,” she continued, unruffled. “Humans naturally want to belong—it’s part of our biology. But our society makes us feel that we’re never good enough to belong. Do you know what I mean, Phil? Because we measure ourselves against useless yardsticks of sex, race, religion, politics, schools. Even height and weight

—”

“What?”

“In contrast, Supper at Six focuses on our commonalities—our chemistries. So even though our viewers may find themselves locked into a learned societal behavior—say, the old ‘men are like this, women are like that’ type of thing—the show encourages them to think beyond that cultural simplicity. To think sensibly. Like a scientist.”

Phil heaved back in his chair, unfamiliar with the sensation of losing.

“That’s why you want to fire me. Because you want a show that reinforces societal norms. That limits an individual’s capacity. I completely understand.”

Phil’s temple began to throb. Hands shaking, he reached for a pack of Marlboros, tapped one out, and lit it. For a moment all was quiet as he inhaled deeply, the radiant end emitting the smallest crackle, like a doll’s campfire. As he exhaled, he studied her face. He got up abruptly, his body vibrating with frustration, and strode over to a sideboard littered with important-looking amber whiskeys and bourbons. Grabbing one, he tipped it into a thick-walled shot glass until the liquid hit the rim and threatened to spill over. He threw it down his throat and poured another, then turned to look at her. “There’s a pecking order here,” he said. “And it’s about time you learned how that works.”

She looked back at him, nonplussed. “I want to go on record saying that Walter Pine has been absolutely tireless in his efforts to get me to follow your suggestions. This is despite the fact that he, too, believes the show

could and should be more. He shouldn’t be punished for my actions. He’s a good man, a loyal employee.”

At the mention of Walter, Lebensmal set down his glass and took another drag off his cigarette. He didn’t like anyone who questioned his authority, but he could not and would not tolerate a woman doing so. With his pinstriped suit jacket parted at the waist, he locked his eyes on her, then slowly started to undo his belt. “I probably should have done this from the very beginning,” he said, snaking the belt from its loops. “Establish the ground rules. But in your case, let’s just consider this part of your exit interview.”

Elizabeth pressed her forearms down on the armchair. In a steady voice she said, “I would advise you not to get any closer, Phil.”

He looked at her meanly. “You really don’t seem to understand who’s in charge here, do you? But you will.” Then he glanced down, successfully freeing the button and unzipping his pants. Removing himself, he stumbled over to her, his genitals bobbing limply just inches from her face.

She shook her head in wonder. She had no idea why men believed women found male genitalia impressive or scary. She bent over and reached into her bag.

“I know who I am!” he shouted thickly, thrusting himself at her. “The question is, who the hell do you think you are?”

“I’m Elizabeth Zott,” she said calmly, withdrawing a freshly sharpened fourteen-inch chef’s knife. But she wasn’t sure he’d heard. He’d fainted dead away.

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