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Chapter no 35 – The Smell of Failure

Lesson, in Chemistry

On Monday morning at four thirty a.m., Elizabeth left her house as she usually did, in the dark, in warm clothes, headed for the boathouse. But as she pulled into the normally empty parking lot, she noticed nearly every space was already taken. She also noticed one other thing. Women. A lot of women. Trudging toward the building in the dark.

“Oh god,” she whispered as she pulled her hood over her head and slipped past the small throng, hoping to find Dr. Mason in time to explain. But it was too late. He was sitting at a long table handing out registration forms. He looked up at her, unsmiling.

“Zott.”

“You may be wondering what this is all about,” she said in a low voice. “Not really.”

“I think what happened,” Elizabeth said, “was that one of my viewers asked for a diet tip, and I suggested she start exercising. I may have mentioned rowing.”

“May have.” “Possibly.”

A woman in line turned to her friend. “The thing I like about rowing already,” she said, pointing at a photograph of eight men in a shell, “is that it’s all done sitting down.”

“See if this jogs your memory,” Mason said, handing the next woman in line a pen. “First you described rowing as the worst form of punishment, then you suggested that women all over the nation give it a whirl.”

“Well. I don’t think those were my exact words—”

“They were. I know because I saw your show while I was waiting for a patient to dilate. So did my wife. She never misses.”

“I’m sorry, Mason, truly. I never expected—”

“Really?” he snapped. “Because two weeks ago, one of my patients refused to push until you finished explaining the Maillard reaction.”

She looked up surprised, then reconsidered. “Well. It is a complicated reaction.”

“I’ve been calling you about this since Friday,” he said pointedly.

Elizabeth started. He had. He’d called both the studio and home and in her avalanche of things to do she’d neglected to call him back.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ve been so busy.”

“Could have used your help in getting this organized.” “Yes.”

“Obviously we won’t be getting on the water today.” “Again, sorry.”

“You know what really kills me?” he said, gesturing at a woman doing jumping jacks. “I’ve been trying to get my wife to row for years. As you know, I believe women have a higher threshold for pain. Still nothing could say could convince her. But one word from Elizabeth Zott—”

The woman doing jumping jacks stopped to give Elizabeth a thumbs-up. “—and she couldn’t get down here fast enough.”

“Oh, I see,” Elizabeth said slowly as she gave the woman a small nod of approval. “So really, you’re glad.”

“I—”

“So what you’re trying to say is, Thank you, Elizabeth.”

“No.”

“You’re very welcome, Dr. Mason.”

“No.”

She glanced back at the woman. “Your wife is getting on the erg.” “Oh god,” Mason called. “Betsy, not that!”

A similar thing happened at other boathouses across the nation. Women showed up, and some of the clubs encouraged them to join. But that’s not to say every club did. Or that everyone who watched Elizabeth’s show liked what she had to say.

“GODLESS HEETHEN!” read a hastily scribbled picket sign emblazoned with Elizabeth’s likeness and hoisted by a mean-looking woman just outside KCTV Studios.

It was Elizabeth’s second parking lot of the morning, and like the first, it was fuller than usual.

“Picketers,” Walter said, catching up to her. “This is why we don’t say certain things on TV, Elizabeth,” he reminded her. “This is why we keep our opinions to ourselves.

“Walter,” said Elizabeth, “peaceful protest is a valued form of discourse.”

“You call this discourse?” he said, as someone shouted, “BURN IN HELL!”

“They’re attention seekers,” she said as if speaking from personal experience. “They’ll move on eventually.”

Still, he worried. She was getting death threats. He’d shared this information with the police and studio security; he’d even called Harriet Sloane and told her. But he hadn’t told Elizabeth because he knew she’d take matters into her own hands. Besides, the police had been very reassuring about the threats. “Bunch of harmless kooks” is how they put it.

Across town, hours later in the Zott living room, Six-Thirty found himself worried, too. At the end of Elizabeth’s show last Friday, he’d noticed that not everyone was clapping. Today’s show, there it was again. A nonclapper. Anxious, he waited until the creature and Harriet were busy in the lab, then slipped out the back door, jogging four blocks south, then two blocks

west, until he was well positioned near the on-ramp. When a flatbed truck slowed to join a line of cars merging onto the freeway, he hopped on.

Obviously, he knew how to find KCTV. Anyone who’d read The Incredible Journey would understand how un-incredible it was that dogs could find just about anything. He used to marvel at the needle in the haystack story Elizabeth had once read to him—marvel because what was so hard about finding a needle in a haystack? The scent of high carbon steel wire was unmistakable.

In short, getting to KCTV wasn’t hard. Getting inside was.

As he meandered through the parking lot, wending his way between cars, their tail fins and hood ornaments glinting in the unseasonably hot sun, he looked for an entrance.

“Hey there, doggy,” a big man in a dark blue uniform said. He was standing in front of an important-looking door. “Where do you think you’re going?”

What Six-Thirty wanted to say was inside, that, like this man in the blue uniform, he too was in security. But since explaining was out of the question, he opted for acting—the very language of television.

“Oh gosh,” the man said as Six-Thirty collapsed in a very convincing heap. “Hold on, boy, I’ll get help!” He banged on the door until someone opened it and then hefted Six-Thirty up and carried him into the air-conditioned building. A minute later, Six-Thirty was lapping water from one of Elizabeth’s very own mixing bowls.

Say what you want about the human race, their capacity for kindness was what—in Six-Thirty’s opinion—put them over the top, species-wise.

“Six-Thirty?”

Elizabeth!

He ran to her in a way that a dog with actual heatstroke never could.

“What the—” began the man in the blue uniform, noting the miracle recovery.

“How did you get in here, Six-Thirty?” Elizabeth said, throwing her arms around him. “How did you find me? This is my dog, Seymour,” she told the man in the blue uniform. “It’s Six-Thirty.”

“Actually, it’s five thirty, ma’am, but still blazing out there. Anyway, the dog keeled over so I hauled him in.”

“Thank you, Seymour,” she gushed. “I really owe you. He must have run all the way here,” she said incredulously. “It’s nine miles.”

“Or maybe he came with your little girl,” Seymour suggested. “And the grandma in the Chrysler? Like they did a couple of months back?”

“Wait,” said Elizabeth, looking up sharply. “What?”

“I can explain,” Walter said, holding up his hands as if to ward off a possible attack.

Elizabeth had long ago made it clear that Madeline was never to come to the studio. He had no idea why; Amanda came all the time. But whenever Elizabeth brought it up, he nodded as if he understood and agreed even though he had no clue and couldn’t care less.

“It was a homework assignment,” he lied. “Watch Your Parent at Work Day.” He had no idea why he felt a sudden urge to make up an alibi for Harriet Sloane, but it felt right. “You’re busy,” he said. “You probably just forgot.”

Elizabeth jolted. Maybe she had. Hadn’t Mason pointed out exactly the same thing that very morning? “It’s just that I don’t want my daughter to think of me as a television personality,” she explained, rolling up one sleeve. “I don’t want her to think that I’m—you know—performing.” She pictured her father, her face hardening like cement.

“Don’t worry,” Walter said dryly. “No one will ever mistake what you do for performance.”

She leaned forward in earnest. “Thank you.”

His secretary came in, carrying a large stack of mail. “I put the things needing immediate attention on top, Mr. Pine,” she said. “And I’m not sure

you’re aware, but there’s a big dog in the hallway.” “A what—?”

“He’s mine,” Elizabeth said quickly. “It’s Six-Thirty. He’s how I found out about Mad’s ‘Watch Your Parent at Work Day’ visit. Seymour told me

—”

Hearing his name, Six-Thirty got up and entered the office, sniffing the air. Walter Pine. Suffers from low self-esteem.

Eyes wide, Walter pressed himself back in his chair. The dog was huge. He took a short breath in, then turned his attention to his stack of mail, only half listening as Elizabeth droned on and on about what the thing could do

—sit, stay, fetch, probably, god only knows. Dog people were always so relentlessly braggy, so ridiculously proud when it came to their dog’s minor accomplishments. But her never-ending discourse gave him the time he needed to ponder how soon he could call Harriet Sloane and get her in on the lie so she could support the story from her end.

“What do you think? You’ve been wanting to try something new,” Elizabeth was saying. “Would it work?”

“Why not?” he said agreeably, having no idea what he’d just agreed to. “Fantastic,” she said. “Then we’ll start tomorrow?”

“Sounds great!” he said.

“Hello,” Elizabeth said the very next day. “My name is Elizabeth Zott and this is Supper at Six. I’d like to introduce you to my dog, Six-Thirty. Say hello to everyone, Six-Thirty.” Six-Thirty cocked his head to the side and the audience laughed and clapped, and Walter, who’d only been informed ten minutes ago that not only was a dog in the building again, but that the hairdresser had trimmed his bangs in preparation for his close-up, sank down in his producer’s chair and vowed to stop telling lies.

After Six-Thirty had been part of the show for a month, it seemed almost inconceivable that he hadn’t been there from the start. Everyone loved him. He’d even started getting his own fan mail.

The only person who still didn’t seem thrilled by his presence was Walter. He assumed this was because Walter wasn’t a “dog person”— a concept he struggled to understand.

“Thirty seconds before the doors open, Zott,” he heard the cameraman say as he positioned himself stage right, thinking of new ways to win Walter over. Last week he’d dropped a ball at Walter’s feet, inviting him to play. He didn’t like playing fetch himself, found the game pointless. As it turned out, so did Walter.

“All right, let ’em in,” someone finally called as the doors opened and grateful viewers, oohing and aahing, found their seats, some pointing at the large clock, its hands still permanently set in the six o’clock position in the same way tourists might point at Mount Rushmore. “There it is,” they’d say. “There’s the clock.”

“And there’s the dog!” nearly everyone said. “Look—it’s Six-Thirty!” He didn’t understand why Elizabeth didn’t like being a star. He loved it.

“The potato’s skin,” Elizabeth was asserting ten minutes later, “is composed of suberized phellem cells, which make up the outer component of the tuber periderm. They constitute the potato’s protection strategy—”

He stood by her side like a Secret Service agent, scanning the audience. “—proving that even tubers understand that the best defense is a good

offense.”

The audience was rapt, making it easy to catalogue every face.

“The potato’s skin is teeming with glycoalkaloids,” she continued, “toxins so indestructible, they can easily survive both cooking and frying. And yet I still use the skin, not only because it’s fiber rich, but because it serves as a daily reminder that in potatoes as in life, danger is everywhere. The best strategy is not to fear the danger, but respect it. And then,” she

added, as she picked up a knife, “deal with it.” The camera zoomed in as she expertly excavated a sprouted potato eye. “Always eliminate potato eyes and green spots,” she instructed, gouging another potato. “That’s where the highest concentration of glycoalkaloids hide.”

Six-Thirty studied the audience, looking for one face in particular. Ah, and there she was. The nonclapper.

Elizabeth announced it was time for station identification, then left the stage. He usually followed her, but today he went down into the audience instead, instantly eliciting a few excited claps and cries of “Here, boy!” Walter insisted he not do this—that people might be afraid or allergic—but Six-Thirty did it anyway because he knew it was important to work the crowd, and also because he wanted to get close to the nonclapper.

She was sitting on the end of the fourth row, her faced fixed in thin-lipped disapproval. He knew the type. As others in the row reached out to stroke him, he scanned the woman like an X-ray machine. She was stiff, unforgiving. Truth be told, he felt a little sorry for her. No one turned this mean without having been a victim of the same.

The thin-lipped woman turned to look at him, her expression hard. She reached a cautious hand into her large bag and took out a cigarette, tapping it twice against her thigh.

A smoker. That figured. It was a well-known fact that humans believed they were the most intelligent species on earth, and yet they were the only animals that willingly inhaled carcinogens. He started to turn away, then stopped, picking up a scent just beyond the nicotine. It was faint but familiar. He sniffed again as the Supper at Six quartet launched into their “And she’s back!” ditty. He glanced again at the nonclapper. She returned her bag to the floor on the edge of the aisle. Her hand shook as she brought the cigarette to her lips.

He lifted his nose in the air. Nitroglycerin? Not possible.

“Fill a large pot with H2O,” Elizabeth was saying, back up onstage, “then take your potatoes—”

He sniffed again. Nitroglycerin. When mishandled, it makes a terrifying

noise, like a firework, or—he swallowed hard, thinking of Calvin— a backfire.

“—and place them in your pot on high heat.”

“Find it, damn it,” he could hear his handler at Camp Pendleton insisting. “Find the fucking bomb!”

“The potato’s starch, a long carbohydrate made up of the molecules amylose and amylopectin—”

Nitroglycerin. The smell of failure.

“—as the starch begins to break down—”

It’s coming from the nonclapper’s handbag.

At Camp Pendleton, the dog was only meant to locate the bomb, not remove it—removal was the handler’s job. But occasionally some of the show-offs—the German shepherds—even did that part.

Despite the coolness of the studio, Six-Thirty began to pant. He tried to move forward, but his legs were like water. He stopped. All he had to do, he told himself, was play the game he liked least—fetch—while retrieving the scent he hated most—nitroglycerin. The idea nauseated him.

“What the heck is this?” Seymour Browne said as he spied a ladies handbag, the handle damp, sitting on his security table just inside the door. “Some lady must be worried sick.” He unsnapped the purse to look for identification, but as the bag yawned open, he took a sharp breath in and reached for the phone.

“Now stand with your arms crossed,” a reporter suggested to Seymour as he put a new flashbulb in his camera. “Look tough—like whoever did this messed with the wrong guy.”

Unbelievably, it was that same reporter—the one from the cemetery. Still trying to improve his journalistic odds, he’d recently installed an illegal police radio in his car and today it had finally paid off: someone had found a small bomb in a ladies handbag over at KCTV Studios.

He took notes as Seymour explained that the bag had simply appeared on his table; he had no idea how it got there. He’d opened it to look for identification but instead found a bunch of flyers decrying Elizabeth Zott as a godless Communist and two sticks of dynamite bound together with wires so flimsy, the whole thing looked like a broken toy.

“But why in the world would someone want to bomb KCTV?” the reporter asked. “Don’t you mostly do afternoon programming? Soap operas? Clown shows?”

“We have all sorts of shows,” Seymour said, running a shaky hand over the top of his head. “But ever since one of our hosts mentioned she doesn’t believe in God, we’ve had some trouble.”

“What?” the reporter said incredulously. “Who doesn’t believe in God?

What kind of show are we talking about?”

“Seymour—Seymour!” Walter Pine called as he and a police officer pushed their way through a small throng of worried employees. “Seymour, thank god you’re all right. After what you did—you risked your life!”

“I’m fine, Mr. Pine,” Seymour said. “And I didn’t do anything. Not really.”

“Actually, Mr. Browne,” the officer said, consulting his notes, “you did. This lady’s been on our radar for a while. She’s a die-hard McCarthyist, a real nut job. Said she’s been sending death threats for months now.” He closed his notebook. “Guess she was tired of being ignored.”

“Death threats?” The reporter perked up. “So this is—what— a news show? Political opinion? Debate?”

“Cooking,” Walter said.

“If you hadn’t gotten hold of that bag, Mr. Browne, this day might have ended very differently. How’d you do it, anyway?” the officer pressed. “How’d you get the bag without her knowing?”

“That’s what I keep telling everyone. I didn’t,” Seymour insisted. “It was just sitting on my table.”

“You’re being too modest,” Walter said, patting him on the back. “The mark of a true hero,” the police officer nodded.

“My editor is going to eat this up,” the reporter said.

From a distance, Six-Thirty lay in a corner watching the men, exhausted.

“Just a few more photos and that should—” Out of the corner of his eye the reporter spied Six-Thirty. “Hey,” he said. “Don’t I know that dog? I know that dog.”

“Everyone knows that dog,” Seymour said. “He’s on the show.”

The reporter looked at Walter, confused. “I thought you said this was a cooking show.”

“It is.”

“A dog on a cooking show? What does the dog do exactly?”

Walter hesitated. “Nothing,” he admitted. But as the words hung in the air, he suddenly felt awful.

From across the room, Six-Thirty’s eyes met his. He wasn’t a dog person, but even Walter could see: the mutt was crushed.

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