Elizabeth Zott is, without a doubt, the most influential, intelligent person on television today, he wrote from seat 21C on the plane heading back to New York. He paused, then ordered another scotch and water as he looked out on the nothingness below. He was a good writer and a good reporter and the combined skills, mixed with a hearty amount of alcohol, meant he would come up with something—he hoped. Her story was not a happy one, and in his line of work, this was usually a good thing. But in this case, and with this woman—
He drummed his fingers on the airline tray table. As a rule, reporters never want to find themselves in any place other than the middle: unbiased and impervious to emotion. But there he was, somewhere off to the side; more specifically, on her side and completely unwilling to see the story any other way. Roth shifted in his seat and downed his new drink in one long swallow.
Dammit. He’d interviewed plenty of others—Walter Pine, Harriet Sloane, a few Hastings people, every crew member of Supper at Six. He’d even been given access to the kid, Madeline, who’d wandered into the lab reading—had it really been The Sound and the Fury? But he didn’t ask the child anything because it felt all wrong, but also because the dog had physically intervened. When Elizabeth was tending to a small cut on Madeline’s leg, Six-Thirty turned to him and bared his teeth.
But never mind what the others had said, it was her words that would stay with him the rest of his life.
“Calvin and I were soulmates,” she began.
She went on to describe her feelings for the awkward, moody man with an intensity that left him feeling bereft. “You don’t need to understand chemistry at an advanced level to appreciate the rarity of our situation,” she said. “Calvin and I didn’t just click; we collided. Literally, actually—in a theater lobby. He vomited on me. You’re familiar with the big bang theory, aren’t you?”
She went on to talk about their love affair using words like “expansion,” “density,” “heat,” emphasizing that what underlay their passion was a mutual respect for the other’s capabilities. “Do you know how extraordinary that is?” she said. “That a man would treat his lover’s work as seriously as his own?”
He took a sharp breath in.
“Obviously I’m a chemist, Mr. Roth,” she said, “which on the surface would explain why Calvin was interested in my research. But I’ve worked with plenty of other chemists and not a single one of them believed I belonged. Except for Calvin and one other.” She glowered. “The other being Dr. Donatti, director of Chemistry at Hastings. He not only knew I belonged, he also knew I was onto something. The truth is, he stole my research. Published it and passed it off as his own.”
Roth’s eyes widened. “I quit the same day.”
“Why didn’t you tell the publication?” he said. “Why didn’t you demand credit?”
Elizabeth looked at Roth as if he lived on some other planet. “I assume you’re kidding.”
Roth felt a flush of shame. Of course. Who was going to take a woman’s word over the male head of the entire department? If he was being honest with himself, he wasn’t even sure he would have.
“I fell in love with Calvin,” she was saying, “because he was intelligent and kind, but also because he was the very first man to take me seriously.
Imagine if all men took women seriously. Education would change. The workforce would revolutionize. Marriage counselors would go out of business. Do you see my point?”
He did, but he really didn’t want to. His wife had recently left him, saying that he didn’t respect her job as a housewife and mother. But being a housewife and mother wasn’t really a job, was it? More like a role. Anyway, she was gone.
“That’s why I wanted to use Supper at Six to teach chemistry. Because when women understand chemistry, they begin to understand how things work.”
Roth looked confused.
“I’m referring to atoms and molecules, Roth,” she explained. “The real rules that govern the physical world. When women understand these basic concepts, they can begin to see the false limits that have been created for them.”
“You mean by men.”
“I mean by artificial cultural and religious policies that put men in the highly unnatural role of single-sex leadership. Even a basic understanding of chemistry reveals the danger of such a lopsided approach.”
“Well,” he said, realizing he’d never seen it that way before, “I agree that society leaves much to be desired, but when it comes to religion, I tend to think it humbles us—teaches us our place in the world.”
“Really?” she said, surprised. “I think it lets us off the hook. I think it teaches us that nothing is really our fault; that something or someone else is pulling the strings; that ultimately, we’re not to blame for the way things are; that to improve things, we should pray. But the truth is, we are very much responsible for the badness in the world. And we have the power to fix it.”
“But surely you’re not suggesting that humans can fix the universe.”
“I’m speaking of fixing us, Mr. Roth—our mistakes. Nature works on a higher intellectual plane. We can learn more, we can go further, but to accomplish this, we must throw open the doors. Too many brilliant minds are kept from scientific research thanks to ignorant biases like gender and
race. It infuriates me and it should infuriate you. Science has big problems to solve: famine, disease, extinction. And those who purposefully close the door to others using self-serving, outdated cultural notions are not only dishonest, they’re knowingly lazy. Hastings Research Institute is full of them.”
Roth stopped writing. This rang a bell. He worked for a well-regarded magazine, yet his new editor had come from The Hollywood Reporter— a rag—and he, Roth, despite his Pulitzer, now reported to someone who referred to news as “buzz,” who insisted “dirty laundry” was a key part of every story. Journalism is a for-profit enterprise! his boss was always reminding him. People want the sleaze!
“I’m an atheist, Mr. Roth,” she said, sighing heavily. “Actually, a humanist. But I have to admit, some days the human race makes me sick.”
She got up, collecting their cups, and set them down near the eye wash station sign. He had the strong feeling that their interview was over, but then she turned back to him.
“As for my undergraduate degree,” she said, “I don’t have one, nor have I ever claimed I did. My entry into Meyers’s graduate program was based solely on self-study. Speaking of Meyers,” she said, her voice hard as she removed the pencil from her hair. “There’s something you should know.” Then she told him the whole story, explaining that she’d had to leave UCLA because when men rape women, they prefer women not to tell.
Roth swallowed hard.
“As for my background, it was my brother who raised me,” she continued. “He taught me how to read, he introduced me to the wonders of the library, he tried to shield me from my parents’ devotion to money. The day we found John hanging from the shed rafters, my father didn’t even wait for the police to arrive. Didn’t want to be late for a performance.” Her father, she explained, was a doomsday showman now serving twenty-five years to life for killing three people as he performed a miracle, the true miracle being that he hadn’t killed more. As for her mother, she hadn’t seen her in more than twelve years. Gone for good in Brazil with an all-new family. Avoiding taxes turns out to be a lifetime commitment.
“But I think Calvin’s childhood really takes the cake.” She went on to explain the death of his parents, then his aunt—the result of which had landed him in a Catholic boys home, where he’d experienced abuse at the hands of priests until he’d grown big enough to stop it. She’d found his old diary buried in the boxes she and Frask had stolen. Although his childish scrawl was often impossible to read, his sorrow sang.
What she didn’t tell Roth was that it was within the pages of Calvin’s diary that she’d discovered the source of his permanent grudge. I’m here even though I should not be, he’d written, as if implying that there’d been an alternative. And I will never ever forgive that man, him. Never. Not as long as I live. After reading his correspondence with Wakely, she now understood that this was the father he’d hoped was dead. The one he promised to hate until the day he died. It was a promise he’d kept.
Roth stared down at the table. He’d had a normal upbringing—two parents, no suicides, no murders, not even a single wayward touch by the priest in his parish. And yet he still found plenty to complain about. What was wrong with him? Just as people have a bad habit of dismissing others’ problems and tragedies, so too did they have a bad habit of not appreciating what they have. Or had. He missed his wife.
“As for Calvin’s death,” she said, “I’m one hundred percent responsible.” He paled as she went on to describe the accident and the leash and the sirens, and how because of it, she would never hold anyone back in any way, ever again. As she saw it, his death spawned a series of other failures: blindsided by Donatti’s theft, she’d given up her research; determined to help her daughter fit in, she’d enrolled her in a school where she did not; worse, she’d become the very person she least wanted to be, a performer like her father. Oh, and also, she’d given Phil Lebensmal a heart attack. “Although I don’t actually consider that last one a failure,” she said.
“What were you guys talking about in there?” the photographer asked on the way to the airport. “Did I miss anything?”
“Not a thing,” Roth lied.
Before he’d gotten in the cab, Roth had already decided he wouldn’t reveal what he’d learned. He would write his piece on deadline, to spec, and not a word over. He would write plenty but say nothing. He would tell about her, but not tell on her. In other words, he would meet his deadline, and in journalism, that is 99 percent of the law.
Despite what Elizabeth Zott will tell you, Supper at Six is not just an introduction to chemistry, he wrote that day on the plane. It’s a thirty-minute, five-day-a-week lesson in life. And not in who we are or what we’re made of, but rather, who we’re capable of becoming.
In lieu of any personal information, he wrote a two-thousand-word description of abiogenesis, followed by a five-hundred-word section on how the elephant metabolizes its food.
“This is not a story!” his new editor had written after reading the first draft. “Where’s the dirt on Zott?”
“There wasn’t any,” Roth said.
Just two months later, there she was, on the cover of Life magazine, arms folded across her chest, countenance grim, flanked by a headline that read “Why We’ll Eat Whatever She Dishes Out.” The six-page article included fifteen photographs of Elizabeth in action—on the show, on her erg, in makeup, petting Six-Thirty, in conference with Walter Pine, adjusting her hair. The article opened with Roth’s line about her being the most intelligent person on television today, except the editor had swapped out “intelligent” and replaced it with “attractive.” It then included a short description of her show’s biggest hits—the fire extinguisher episode, the poison mushroom episode, the I-don’t-believe-in-God episode, and countless others—ending with his observation that hers was a show of life lessons. But the rest?
“She’s the angel of death” was the quote a hungry cub reporter got from Zott’s father in the visitation room at Sing Sing. “The devil’s spawn. And she’s uppity.”
The cub reporter had also managed to get a quote from Dr. Meyers at UCLA, who characterized Zott as a “lackluster student more interested in men than molecules,” adding that she wasn’t nearly as good-looking in person as she was on TV.
“Who?” Donatti had asked when the cub reporter first brought up Zott’s employment record. “Zott? Oh wait—you mean Luscious Lizzie? ‘Luscious’ is what we all called her,” he said, “which she used to protest in that way women do when they aren’t actually protesting.” He smiled, proving his point by producing her old lab coat, which still sported her initials, E.Z. “Luscious was a great lab tech—that’s a position we have for people who want to be in science but don’t have the brains.”
The last quote was from Mrs. Mudford. “Women belong in the home, and the fact that Elizabeth Zott is not in the home has proven to be disruptive to her child’s well-being. She often exaggerated her child’s abilities—the first sign of a status-conscious parent. Naturally, when her daughter was my student, I worked very hard to counter that effect.” Mudford’s quote was accompanied by, of all things, a copy of Madeline’s family tree. Lies! Mudford had written across the top. See me!
Out of everything in the article, it was the tree that did the most harm. Because on it, Madeline had not only written in Walter as a relative— readers instantly assumed this meant Elizabeth was sleeping with her producer—but had also included a small drawing of a grandfather in prison stripes, a grandmother eating tamales in Brazil, a large dog reading Old Yeller, an acorn labeled “Fairy Godmother,” a woman named Harriet poisoning her husband, a dead father’s tombstone, a kid with a noose around his neck, as well as some hazy ties to Nefertiti, Sojourner Truth, and Amelia Earhart.
The magazine sold out in under twenty-four hours.