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Chapter no 42 – Personnel

Lessons in Chemistry

JANUARY 1962

It had been everyone’s assumption—everyone being Harriet, Walter, Wakely, Mason, and Elizabeth herself—that she would be flooded with employment offers. Universities, research labs, perhaps even the National Institutes of Health. Despite the mockery Life magazine had made of her life, she’d been a prominent personality, a television celebrity.

But it didn’t happen. In fact, nothing happened. Not only did she not receive a single call, but her résumés to research concerns were completely ignored. Despite her daytime popularity, the scientific community continued to entertain significant doubt regarding her academic credentials. Dr. Meyers, Dr. Donatti—very important chemists—were quoted in Life magazine as having said she wasn’t really a scientist. That was all it took.

And thus she was introduced to the other truism of fame: that it was fleeting. The only Elizabeth Zott anyone was interested in was the one who’d worn an apron.

“You could always return to the show,” Harriet said as Elizabeth came in through the door with Six-Thirty, her arms full of library books. “You know Walter would put you back on today if you’d let him.”

“I know,” she said, setting the books down, “but I can’t. At least the reruns are doing well. Coffee?” she asked, lighting a Bunsen burner.

“I don’t have time. I’m meeting with my attorney. But here,” Harriet said, pulling little notes out of her apron pocket. “Dr. Mason wants to talk about new uniforms for the women’s team and—are you ready for this?— Hastings called. I almost hung up. Can you imagine? Hastings. They have a lot of nerve calling here.”

“Who was it?” Elizabeth asked, trying to keep the worry out of her voice. For the last two and a half years, she’d been waiting for Hastings to notice Calvin’s boxes were missing.

“The head of Personnel. But don’t worry. I told her to go to hell.” “Her?”

Harriet shuffled through the messages. “Here it is. A Miss Frask.”

“Frask isn’t at Hastings,” Elizabeth said, relieved. “She was fired years ago. She types sermons for Wakely.”

“Interesting,” Harriet said. “Well, she claimed she’s head of Personnel at Hastings.”

Elizabeth frowned. “She likes to kid.”

After Harriet’s car pulled out of the driveway, Elizabeth poured herself a cup of coffee, then reached for the phone.

“Miss Frask’s office, Miss Finch speaking,” said the voice. “Miss Frask’s office?” Elizabeth scoffed.

“Excuse me?” came the voice.

Elizabeth hesitated. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but who is this?” “Who is this?” demanded the voice.

“Okay, okay,” Elizabeth said. “I’ll play along. Elizabeth Zott calling for Miss Frask.”

“Elizabeth Zott,” the person on the other end said. “Good one.” “Is there a problem?” Elizabeth asked.

It was the tone. The woman on the other end recognized it immediately. “Oh,” she breathed. “It is you. I’m so sorry, Miss Zott. I’m such a fan. It’s an honor to connect you. Please hold.”

“Zott,” came a voice a moment later. “About fucking time!”

“Hello, Frask,” Elizabeth said. “Head of Personnel at Hastings? Does Wakely know you’re making crank calls?”

“Three things, Zott,” Frask said briskly. “One: loved the article. I always knew I’d see you back on the cover of something, but there? Stroke of genius. If you want to reach the choir, it only makes sense to go where they worship.”

“What?”

“Two, I love that housekeeper of yours—” “Harriet is not a housekeeper—”

“—the second I told her I was calling from Hastings, she told me to go to hell. Made my day.”

“Frask—”

“Third, I need you to come in as soon as possible—as in today—in the next hour or so if you can swing it. Remember that fat-cat investor? He’s back.”

“Frask,” Elizabeth sighed, “you know I love a good joke, but—”

Frask laughed. “You love a joke? Is that supposed to be a joke? No, Zott, listen. I’m back at Hastings—in fact I’m top of the heap. That investor of yours saw the letter I wrote to Life and contacted me. I’ll fill you in on the details later; I don’t have time now. I’m cleaning house. God, I love to clean! Can you come or not? Also, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but can you bring the damn dog? The investor wants to meet him.”

Harriet entered the law offices of Hanson & Hanson, her hands shaking. For the last thirty years, she’d confessed to her priest that her husband drank and cursed and never himself attended Mass, that he treated her as his own personal slave, that he called her names. And for the last thirty years, the priest had nodded, then explained that while divorce was out of the question, she still had lots of options. For example, she could pray to find ways to become a better wife, she could take a good look at herself and try

to understand how she upset him, she could take more care with her appearance.

That’s why she’d subscribed to all those women’s magazines—because they were bibles of self-improvement and they would show her what to do. But no matter what advice she followed, things between her and Mr. Sloane did not improve. Worse, sometimes the advice backfired—like the time she’d gotten a perm, something the magazine claimed would “make him sit up and take notice,” but instead resulted in endless complaints about how terrible she smelled. But then Elizabeth Zott came into her life and she finally realized that maybe what she needed wasn’t new clothes or a different hairdo. Maybe what she needed was a career. In magazines.

Was there anyone in the world who knew more about magazines than she did? It wasn’t possible. And to prove this point, she knew exactly where to start. With Roth’s still unpublished article.

In Harriet’s opinion, Roth had made the classic error of article placement—he’d assumed only science magazines would be interested in a piece on women in science. Harriet knew that was wrong. She called him, prepared to present her case, but his answering service relayed that Roth was still in—what was it? Vietnam. So she submitted his article without his permission. Why not? If it was accepted, he’d thank her, and if it wasn’t, he wouldn’t be any worse off than he was now.

She took the package to the post office to weigh it, added a self-addressed, stamped envelope to ensure a speedy reply, then performed three Hail Marys, two signs of the cross, took one deep breath, and dropped it in the slot.

After two weeks without any response, she felt a twinge of worry. After four months, the burn of rejection. She tried to face facts. Maybe she didn’t know magazines as well as she thought she did. Maybe no one wanted Harriet and her Roth article, just like no one wanted Elizabeth and her abiogenesis.

Or maybe Mr. Sloane, unhappy with Harriet’s newfound happiness, had decided to punish her in all new ways. Maybe he threw out her mail.

“Miss Zott,” the Hastings receptionist swooned as Elizabeth entered the lobby. “I’ll let Miss Frask know you’re here.” She plugged a cable into the switchboard. “She’s here!” the woman hissed to someone on the other end. “Would you mind?” She held out a copy of The Voyage of the Beagle. “I just started night school.”

“Love to,” Elizabeth said, signing the cover. “Good for you.”

“It’s because of you, Miss Zott,” the young woman said earnestly. “Also, if it’s not too much to ask, could you also autograph my magazine?”

“No,” Elizabeth said. “Life’s dead to me.”

“Oh, sorry,” the young woman said. “I don’t read Life. I meant your latest one.” She held out a thick, slick publication.

Elizabeth looked down, shocked to see her face staring back at her. “Why Their Minds Matter” read the cover of Vogue.

As they clipped down the hallway, their heels in sharp contrast to the muffled sounds of generators and cooling fans coming from the other laboratories, Frask informed Elizabeth that they were meeting in Calvin’s old lab.

“Why there?” Elizabeth said. “The fat cat insisted.”

“It’s a pleasure, Miss Zott,” Wilson said, unfurling his long limbs from the stool. He reached his hand out as Elizabeth took inventory: carefully cut gray hair, sage-colored eyes, pin-striped woolen suit. Six-Thirty, too, gave him a thorough sniff, then turned to Elizabeth. All clear.

“I’ve been wanting to meet you for a very long time,” Wilson was saying. “We appreciate your willingness to come in on such short notice.”

“We?” Elizabeth asked, surprised.

“He means me,” a fiftyish woman said as she emerged from the lab’s supply cabinet with a clipboard. She had the kind of hair that had once been blond but was slowly surrendering to age. Like Wilson, she also wore a suit, but hers was bright blue and, despite the careful tailoring, looked less serious, thanks to a cheap daisy brooch pinned to her lapel. “Avery Parker,” she said nervously, gripping Elizabeth’s hand. “Pleasure.”

Six-Thirty, having finished his investigation of Wilson, went to analyze Parker. He sniffed her leg. “Hello, Six-Thirty,” she said. She bent over and pressed his head against her thigh. He took an exploratory sniff, then drew his head back in surprise. “He probably smells my dog,” she said, drawing him back in. “Bingo’s a huge fan of yours,” she said, looking down at him. “Loved your work on the show.”

What a highly intelligent human being.

“We’ll be needing a full inventory from every lab,” she said, turning to Frask. “And we’ll also need to know what you might need, Miss Zott,” she said with a touch of deference, “for your research. Your research here at Hastings, I mean.”

“To continue your work on abiogenesis,” Wilson interjected. “On your final show you announced your intention to return to your research. What better place than here?”

Elizabeth cocked her head to the side. “I can think of several.”

The last time she’d been in this room, Frask was here, too, although at that time Frask was informing her that Calvin’s things were gone, Six-Thirty had to go, and Madeline was on the way. She took in the depressing chalkboard filled with someone else’s writing, then looked back at Mr. Wilson. He was draped on Calvin’s old stool like a bolt of fabric.

“I really don’t want to waste your time,” Elizabeth said, “but I don’t see myself returning to Hastings. It’s personal.”

“I can understand,” Avery Parker said. “After all that transpired here, who could blame you. Still, I’d like a chance to change your mind.”

Elizabeth looked around the lab, her eyes resting on one of Calvin’s old signs. KEEP OUT it warned.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “You’ll be wasting your breath.”

Avery Parker looked to Wilson, who in turn looked to Frask.

“Why don’t we have some coffee,” Frask said, jumping up. “I’ll make a fresh pot. And while we’re waiting, the Parker Foundation can fill you in on some of their plans.” But before she’d gone halfway across the room, the lab door swung open.

“Wilson!” Donatti shouted as if greeting a long-lost friend. “Just heard you were in town.” He rushed forward, his hand extended like an overeager salesman. “Dropped everything and came right over. Technically I’m still on vacation, but—” He stopped abruptly, surprised to see a familiar face. “Miss Frask?” he said. “What are you—” Then he swiveled his head toward a frowny-looking older woman holding a clipboard. And just beyond her stood—what the hell?—Elizabeth Zott.

“Hello, Dr. Donatti,” Avery said, extending her hand just as he dropped his. “It’s nice to finally put a face to the name.”

“I’m sorry, but you are…?” he said condescendingly, while trying to avoid looking at Zott the way one avoids a solar eclipse.

“I’m Avery Parker,” she said, pulling her hand back. And when he continued to look confused, she added, “Parker. As in the Parker Foundation.”

His lips parted in fear.

“I’m sorry to learn we’ve interrupted your vacation, Dr. Donatti,” Avery said. “But the good news is, you’re about to have plenty of free time.”

Donatti shook his head at her, then turned back to Wilson. “As I said.

Had I known you were coming—”

“But we didn’t want you to know we were coming,” Wilson explained genially. “We wanted to surprise you. Or no, technically I guess this is more of blindside.”

“Ex-excuse me?”

“Blindside,” Wilson repeated. “You know. Like the way you blindsided us by misappropriating Parker Foundation funds. Or the way you blindsided Miss Zott—or should I say Mr. Zott?—when you stole her work.”

Across the room, Elizabeth raised her eyebrows in surprise.

“Now look here,” Donatti said, jabbing a finger in Zott’s general direction. “I don’t know what that woman told you, but I can assure you—” He stopped midway. “And why the hell are you here?” he demanded, pointing at Frask. “After those ridiculous lies you wrote in your petulant little letter to Life? My lawyer wants to sue.” He turned to Wilson. “You’re probably not aware, Wilson, but we fired Frask years ago. She’s got an axe to grind.”

“She does,” Wilson agreed. “It’s a sharp axe, too.”

“Exactly,” Donatti said.

“I know,” Wilson said. “Because I’m her lawyer.” Donatti’s eyes bulged.

“Donatti,” Avery Parker said as she dug in a bag and pulled out a single sheet of paper. “I hate to be rude, but we’re short on time. All we need is a quick signature and then you’re free to go.” She held out a document headed by two simple words: “Termination Notice.”

Donatti, speechless, stared down at the document while Wilson explained that the Parker Foundation had recently acquired a majority share in Hastings. It was Frask’s letter in Life magazine, Wilson said, that had prompted them to take a closer look—blah, blah, blah—malfeasance—blah, blah, blah—decided to take the whole place over—Donatti could barely listen. Wasn’t this Calvin Evans’s old lab? From somewhere far off in the distance, he heard Wilson droning on about “sloppy management,” “faked test results,” “plagiarism.” God, he needed a drink.

“We’re making some cuts,” Frask said.

“What do you mean we?” Donatti said, snapping back. “I’m making some cuts,” Frask said.

“You’re a secretary,” Donatti exhaled, as if he were tired of this charade. “Fired, remember?”

“Frask is our new head of Personnel,” Wilson informed him. “We’ve asked her to find a new director of Chemistry.”

“But I’m the head of Chemistry,” Donatti reminded him.

“We’ve decided to offer the job to someone else,” Avery Parker said.

She nodded at Elizabeth.

Elizabeth, surprised, took a step back.

“Out of the question!” thundered Donatti.

“I wasn’t really asking a question,” Avery Parker said, the termination notice hanging limp in her hand. “But if you’d like, we could leave your employment status up to someone who really knows your work.” For the second time, she tilted her head in Elizabeth’s direction.

All eyes turned to Elizabeth, but she didn’t seem to notice; she was already fixated on the sputtering Donatti. Hands on hips, she leaned forward slightly, her eyes narrowed as if peering into a microscope. There were two beats of silence. Then she leaned back as if she’d seen enough.

“Sorry, Donatti,” she said, handing him a pen. “You’re just not smart enough.”

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