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Chapter no 36 – Life and Death

Lesson, in Chemistry

“Big news!” Walter said a week later, his body trembling with excitement as he joined Elizabeth, Harriet, Madeline, and Amanda at the table. This had become a regular occurrence—Sunday night dinner in Elizabeth’s lab. “Life magazine called today. They want to do a cover story!”

“Not interested,” Elizabeth said. “But it’s Life!”

“They’ll want personal details—things that are no one’s business. I know how this works.”

“Look,” Walter said. “We really need this. The death threats have ended, but we could use some positive exposure.”

“No.”

“You’ve turned down every single magazine, Elizabeth. You can’t keep doing this.”

“I’d happily talk with Chemistry Today.

“Yes,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Fantastic. Not exactly our target audience, but I’m so desperate, I actually called them.”

“And?” she said eagerly.

“They said they weren’t interested in interviewing some lady who cooks on TV.”

Elizabeth stood up and walked out.

“Help me, Harriet,” Walter begged as they sat outside on the back step after dinner.

“You shouldn’t have called her a TV cook.”

“I know, I know. But she shouldn’t have told everyone she doesn’t believe in God. We’re never going to live this down.”

The screen door opened. “Harriet?” Amanda interrupted. “Come play.” “In a bit,” Harriet said, encircling the little girl with her arm. “Why

don’t you and Mad build a fort first. Then I’ll come.”

“Amanda is very fond of you, Harriet,” Walter said quietly as his daughter ran back indoors. He managed to stop himself from adding, As am

I. In the past few months, his repeated visits to the Zott residence meant that he’d seen more and more of Harriet. Each time he left, he found himself thinking of her for hours. She was married—unhappily according to Elizabeth—but so what, she’d still never shown any interest in him, and who could blame her. He was fifty-five years old, going bald, bad at his job, and with a young child who was not even technically his. If there was a textbook called Least Desirable Traits of Men, he’d be on the cover.

“Oh?” said Harriet, her neck turning scarlet at the compliment. She fussed with her dress, pulling it low to her socks. “I’ll talk to Elizabeth,” she promised. “But you should speak with the writer first. Tell him to avoid personal questions. Especially anything relating to Calvin Evans. Keep it focused on Elizabeth—on what she’s accomplished.”

The interview was set for the following week. The reporter, Franklin Roth, an award-winning journalist, was well-known for his ability to gain the trust of even the most recalcitrant stars. As he slipped into his seat in the middle of the Supper at Six audience, Elizabeth was already onstage chopping through a large pile of greens. “Many believe protein comes from meat, eggs, and fish,” she was saying, “but protein originates in plants, and plants are what the biggest, strongest animals in the world eat.” She held up a National Geographic magazine featuring a spread on elephants, then went

on to explain, in excruciating detail, the metabolic process of the world’s largest land animal, asking the camera to zoom in on a photograph of the elephant’s feces.

“You can actually see the fiber,” she said, tapping the photo.

Roth had seen the show a few times and had found it strangely entertaining, but now, as part of the audience, he found those around him— the audience was 98 percent women—as much a part of the story as Zott was. Everyone seemed to have come armed with a notebook and pencil; a few carried chemistry textbooks. They all paid strict attention like one is supposed to in college lecture halls or church but rarely does.

During one of the advertising breaks he turned to the woman next to him. “If you don’t mind me asking,” he said politely, showing his credentials, “what is it that you like about the show?”

“Being taken seriously.” “Not the recipes?”

She looked back incredulously. “Sometimes I think,” she said slowly, “that if a man were to spend a day being a woman in America, he wouldn’t make it past noon.”

The woman on the other side of him tapped his knee. “Prepare for a revolt.”

After the show, he made his way backstage, where Zott shook his hand and her dog, Six-Thirty, sniffed him like a cop doing a pat-down. After brief introductions, she invited both him and his photographer into her dressing room, where she talked about the show—or rather the chemistry she’d covered on the show. He listened politely, then commented on her trousers

—called them a bold choice. She looked at him surprised, then congratulated him on his same bold choice. There was a tone.

As the photographer quietly clicked away, he changed the subject to her hairstyle. She eyed him coldly.

The photographer looked at Roth, worried. He’d been charged with getting at least one photograph of Elizabeth Zott smiling. Do something, he motioned to Roth. Say something funny.

“Can I ask about that pencil in your hair?” Roth tried again.

“Of course,” she said. “It’s a number-two pencil. ‘Two’ signifies the lead hardness, although pencils don’t actually contain lead. They contain graphite, which is a carbon allotrope.”

“No, I meant why a—”

“A pencil instead of a pen? Because unlike ink, graphite is erasable. People make mistakes, Mr. Roth. A pencil allows one to clear the mistake and move on. Scientists expect mistakes, and because of it, we embrace failure.” Then she eyed his pen disapprovingly.

The photographer rolled his eyes.

“Look,” Roth said, closing his notepad. “I was under the impression that you’d agreed to this interview, but I can tell that this has been forced upon you. I never interview anyone against their will; I sincerely apologize for our intrusion.” Then he turned to the photographer and tipped his head toward the door. They were halfway across the parking lot before Seymour Browne stopped them. “Zott says wait here,” he said.

Five minutes later, Roth was riding next to Elizabeth Zott in the front seat of her old blue Plymouth, the dog and the photographer relegated to the back.

“He doesn’t bite, does he?” the photographer asked as he crammed himself against the window.

“All dogs have the ability to bite,” she said over her shoulder. “Just as all humans have the ability to cause harm. The trick is to act in a reasonable way so that harm becomes unnecessary.”

“Was that a yes?” he asked, but they were merging onto the freeway and his question was lost in the acceleration of the engine.

“Where are we going?” Roth asked.

“My lab.”

But when they pulled up in front of a small brown bungalow in a tired but tidy neighborhood, he thought he must have misheard.

“I’m afraid I’m the one who now owes you the apology,” she said to Roth as she ushered them inside. “My centrifuge is on the fritz. But I can still make coffee.”

She set to work as the photographer clicked away, Roth’s mouth gaping in wonder as he took in what must have once been a kitchen. It looked like a cross between an operating room and a biohazard site.

“It was an unbalanced load,” she explained, adding something about the separation of fluids based on density as she pointed at a big silver thing. Centrifuge? He had no idea. He reopened his notepad. She set a plate of cookies in front of him.

“They’re cinnamaldehyde,” she explained. He turned to find the dog watching him.

“Six-Thirty is an unusual name for a dog,” he said. “What’s it mean?”

“Mean?” She turned toward him as she lit a Bunsen burner, frowning as if, once again, she didn’t understand why he insisted on asking such basic questions. She then supplied a detailed description of the Babylonians, who had relied on a sexagesimal system—counting by sixties, she explained—for both mathematics and astronomy. “So hopefully that should clear that up,” she said.

Meanwhile, the photographer, whom she’d invited to have a look around, asked about the contraption in the middle of the living room floor. “The erg?” she said. “It’s a rowing machine. I’m a rower. Many women are.”

Roth laid his notepad on the table in the lab and followed them into the next room, where she demonstrated the rowing stroke. “An erg is a unit of energy,” she’d explained while moving back and forth in a tedious sort of way, the photographer snapping from multiple angles. “It takes a lot of ergs to row.” Then she’d gotten up and the photographer took several pictures of her hand calluses before they all returned to the lab, where Roth discovered the dog slobbering on his notes.

That’s how the interview went: from one end of dull to the other. He continued to ask his questions and she answered all of them—politely, dutifully, scientifically. In other words, he had nothing.

She placed a cup of coffee in front of him. He wasn’t really a coffee drinker—too bitter for his taste—but she’d gone to such extraordinary lengths to make it: flasks, tubes, pipettes, vapors. To be polite, he took a sip. Then he took another.

“Is this really coffee?” he asked, awed.

“Perhaps you’d like to see how Six-Thirty helps me in the lab,” she offered. She proceeded to strap some goggles onto the dog, then explained her area of research—abiogenesis, she called it—then spelled it, a-b-i-o, then grabbed his pad and wrote it down in block letters. Meanwhile the photographer snapped shot after shot of Six-Thirty pressing a button that raised and lowered the fume hood.

“I wanted to bring you here,” she said to Roth, “because as I want your readers to understand, I’m not really a TV cooking show host. I’m a chemist. For a while, I was trying to solve one of the greatest chemical mysteries of our time.”

She went on to explain abiogenesis, her excitement evident as she used precise description to paint a full picture. She was very good at explaining, he realized, had a way of making even dull concepts seem exciting. He took detailed notes as she waved and pointed at various things in her lab, occasionally sharing with him test results and her interpretations, apologizing again for the malfunctioning centrifuge, explaining that a home cyclotron was out of the question, implying that current city zoning laws had kept her from installing some kind of radioactive device. “Politicians don’t make it easy, do they?” she said. “Nevertheless, the origin of life. That’s what I was after.”

“But not anymore?” he asked. “Not anymore,” she said.

Roth twisted on his stool. He’d never had the remotest interest in science—people, that was his gig. But when it came to Elizabeth Zott, getting at who she was over what she did was proving impossible. He

suspected there was one way in, but he’d been explicitly warned by Walter Pine not to go down that road—that if he did, the interview would end badly. Nevertheless, Roth decided to chance it. “Tell me about Calvin Evans,” he said.

At the mere mention of Calvin’s name, Elizabeth whipped around, her eyes filled with disappointment. She gave Roth a good long look—the kind of look one gives to someone who’s broken a promise. “So you’re more interested in Calvin’s work,” she said flatly.

The photographer shook his head at Roth and exhaled in a “good going, genius” way. He put his lens cap on in surrender. “I’ll be outside,” he said, disgusted.

“It’s not his work I’m interested in,” Roth said. “I wanted to know about your relationship with Evans.”

“How is that your business?”

Again, he felt the weight of the dog’s eyes on him. I have mapped and memorized the location of your carotid artery.

“It’s just that there’s a lot of chatter about what went on between the two of you.”

“Chatter.”

“I understand he came from a wealthy background—rower, Cambridge

—and that you were,” he checked his notes, “a UCLA graduate. Although I notice you weren’t an undergrad there. Where did you go? I also learned you were fired from Hastings.”

“You’ve checked my credentials.” “That’s part of my job.”

“You checked Calvin’s too, then.”

“Well, no, it wasn’t really necessary. He was so famous that—” She cocked her head in a way he found worrisome.

“Miss Zott,” he said. “You’re also quite famous—” “Fame doesn’t interest me.”

“Don’t let the public tell your story for you, Miss Zott,” Roth warned. “They have a way of twisting the truth.”

“So do reporters,” she said, taking the stool next to his. For a moment she seemed on the verge of cooperating, then reconsidered, turning her attention to the wall.

They sat that way for a long time—long enough that the coffee grew cold and even her Timex’s tick seemed to lose its enthusiasm. Outside, a horn honked and a woman shouted, “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times.”

If there’s a truism in journalism, it’s this: it’s only when the reporter stops asking that the subject starts telling. Roth knew this, but that wasn’t why he remained silent. Rather, it was because he hated himself. He’d been told not to cross this line and he’d done it anyway. He’d gained her trust, then stomped all over it. He wanted to apologize, but as a writer he already knew words wouldn’t work. In true apologies, they seldom do.

Suddenly a siren screamed by and she startled like a deer.

She leaned forward and reopened his notepad for him. “You want to know about Calvin and me?” she said sharply. And then she began to tell him the one thing no one should ever tell a reporter: the bare, naked truth. And he hardly knew what to do with it.

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