Chapter no 5 – Family Values

Lessons in Chemistry

Her lab mates assumed Elizabeth was dating Calvin Evans for one reason only: his fame. With Calvin in her back pocket, she was untouchable. But the reason was much simpler: “Because I love him,” she would have said if someone asked. But no one asked.

It was the same for him. Had anyone asked him, Calvin would have said Elizabeth Zott was what he treasured most in the world, and not because she was pretty, and not because she was smart, but because she loved him and he loved her with a certain kind of fullness, of conviction, of faith, that underscored their devotion to each other. They were more than friends, more than confidants, more than allies, and more than lovers. If relationships are a puzzle, then theirs was solved from the get-go—as if someone shook out the box and watched from above as each separate piece landed exactly right, slipping one into the other, fully interlocked, into a picture that made perfect sense. They made other couples sick.

At night, after they made love, they would always lie in the same position on their backs, his leg slung over hers, her arm atop his thigh, his head tipped down toward hers, and they would talk: sometimes about their challenges, other times about their future, always about their work. Despite their postcoital fatigue, their conversations often lasted long into the early morning hours, and whenever it was about a certain finding or formula, eventually, invariably, one of them would finally have to get up and take a few notes. While some couples’ togetherness tends to affect their work in a negative way, it was just the opposite for Elizabeth and Calvin. They were

working even when they weren’t working—fueling each other’s creativity and inventiveness with a new point of view—and while the scientific community would later marvel at their productivity, they probably would have marveled even more had they realized most of it was done naked.

“Still awake?” Calvin whispered hesitantly one night as they lay in bed. “Because I wanted to run something by you. It’s about Thanksgiving.”

“What about it?”

“Well, it’s coming up and I wondered if you were going home, and if you were, if you were going to invite me to tag along and”—he paused, then rushed ahead—“meetyourfamily.”

“What?” Elizabeth whispered back. “Home? No. I’m not going home. I thought we might have Thanksgiving here. Together. Unless. Well. Were you planning on going home?”

“Absolutely not,” he said.

In the past few months, Calvin and Elizabeth had talked about almost everything—books, careers, beliefs, aspirations, movies, politics, even allergies. There was only one obvious exception: family. It wasn’t intentional—not at first, anyway—but after months of never bringing it up, it became clear it might never come up.

It’s not to say they were incurious of each other’s roots. Who didn’t want to dip into the deep end of someone else’s childhood and meet all the usual suspects—the strict parent, the competitive siblings, the crazy aunt? Not them.

Thus the topic of family was like a cordoned-off room on a historic home tour. One could still tip a head in to get a vague sense that Calvin had grown up somewhere (Massachusetts?) and that Elizabeth had brothers (or was it sisters?)—but there was no opportunity to step inside and sneak a peek at the medicine cabinet. Until Calvin brought up Thanksgiving.

“I can’t believe I’m asking this,” he finally ventured in the thick silence. “But I realize I don’t know where you’re from.”

“Oh,” Elizabeth said. “Well. Oregon, mostly. You?” “Iowa.”

“Really?” she asked. “I thought you were from Boston.” “No,” he said quickly. “Any brothers? Sisters?”

“A brother,” she said. “You?” “None.” His voice was flat.

She lay very still, taking in his tone. “Was it lonely?” she asked. “Yes,” he said bluntly.

“I’m sorry,” she said, taking his hand under the sheets. “Your parents didn’t want another child?”

“Hard to say,” he said, his voice reedy. “It’s not really the kind of thing a kid asks a parent, is it? But probably. Certainly.”

“But then—”

“They died when I was five. My mother was eight months pregnant at the time.”

“Oh my god. I’m so sorry, Calvin,” Elizabeth said, bolting upright. “What happened?”

“Train,” he said matter-of-factly. “Hit them.” “Calvin, I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”

“It’s okay,” he said. “It was a long time ago. I don’t really remember them.”


“Your turn,” he said abruptly.

“No wait, wait, Calvin, who raised you?” “My aunt. But then she died, too.”

“What? How?

“We were in the car and she had a heart attack. The car jumped the curb and slammed into a tree.”


“Call it a family tradition. Dying in accidents.” “That’s not funny.”

“I wasn’t trying to be funny.”

“How old were you?” Elizabeth pressed. “Six.”

She squeezed her eyes shut. “And then you were put in a…” Her voice trailed off.

“A Catholic boys home.”

“And…,” she prompted him, hating herself for doing so. “What was that like?”

He paused as if trying to find an honest answer to this obscenely simple question. “Rough,” he finally said, his voice so low she barely heard him.

A quarter mile away, a train whistled and Elizabeth cringed. How many nights had Calvin lain there and heard that whistle and thought about his dead parents and his almost sibling and never said a word? Unless, perhaps, he never thought about them—he’d said he could barely remember them. But then who did he remember? And what had they been like? And when he’d said, “Rough,” what did that mean exactly? She wanted to ask, but his tone—so dark and low and strange—warned her to go no further. And what about his later life? How did he ever learn to row in the middle of Iowa, much less make his way to Cambridge to row there? And college? Who’d paid for it? And his earlier education? A boys home in Iowa didn’t sound like it provided much in the way of learning. It’s one thing to be brilliant, but to be brilliant without opportunity—that was something else. If Mozart had been born to a poor family in Bombay instead of a cultured one in Salzburg, would he have composed Symphony no. 36 in C? Not a chance. How, then, had Calvin come from nothing to become one of the most highly respected scientists in the world?

“You were saying,” he said, his voice wooden, as he pulled her back down next to him. “Oregon.”

“Yes,” she said, dreading the telling of her own story. “How often do you visit?” he asked.


“But why?” Calvin almost shouted, shocked that she could throw away a perfectly good family. One that was still alive anyway.

“Religious reasons.”

Calvin paused, as if he might have missed something.

“My father was a…a type of religious expert,” she explained. “A what?”

“A sort of God salesman.” “I’m not following—”

“Someone who preaches gloom and doom to make money. You know,” she said, her voice filling with embarrassment, “the kind who rants about how the end is near but has a solution—say a specialized baptism or a pricey amulet—that will keep Judgment Day off just a bit longer.”

“There’s a living in that?”

She turned her head toward his. “Oh yes.” He lay silent, trying to imagine it.

“Anyway,” she said, “we had to move a lot because of it. You can’t keep telling everyone the end is near if the end never comes.”

“What about your mother?” “She made the amulets.”

“No, I mean, was she also very religious?”

Elizabeth hesitated. “Only if you count greed as a religion. There’s lots of competition in this area, Calvin—it’s extremely lucrative. But my father was especially gifted and the new Cadillac he got every year proved it. But when it comes down to it, I think my father’s talent for spontaneous combustion really made him stand out.”

“Wait. What?

“It’s really hard to ignore someone who shouts, ‘Give me a sign,’ and then something bursts into flame.”

“Wait. Are you saying—”

“Calvin,” she said, reverting to her standard scientific tone, “did you know pistachios are naturally flammable? It’s because of their high fat content. Normally pistachios are stored under fairly rigid conditions of humidity, temperature, and pressure, but should those conditions be altered, the pistachio’s fat-cleaving enzymes produce free fatty acids that are broken down when the seed takes in oxygen and sheds carbon dioxide. Result?

Fire. I will credit my father for two things: he could conjure a spontaneous combustion whenever he needed a convenient sign from God.” She shook her head. “Boy, did we go through the pistachios.”

“And the other?” he asked in wonder.

“He was the one who introduced me to chemistry.” She exhaled. “I should thank him for that, I guess,” she said bitterly. “But I don’t.”

Calvin turned his head to the left, trying to disguise his disappointment. In that moment, he realized how much he’d wanted to meet her family— how much he’d hoped to sit at a Thanksgiving table, surrounded by people who would finally be his because he was hers.

“Where’s your brother?” he asked.

“Dead.” Her voice was hard. “Suicide.” “Suicide?” Air left his chest. “How?” “He hanged himself.”

“But…but why?”

“Because my father told him God hated him.” “But…but…”

“Like I said, my father was very convincing. If my father said God wanted something, God usually got it. God being my father.”

Calvin’s stomach tensed.

“Were…were you and he close?” She took a deep breath. “Yes.

“But I don’t understand,” he persisted. “Why would your father do such a thing?” He turned his attention to the dark ceiling. He’d not had much experience with families, but he’d always assumed that being part of one was important: a prerequisite for stability, what one relied on to get through the hard times. He’d never really considered that a family could actually be the hard times.

“John—my brother—was a homosexual,” Elizabeth said. “Oh,” he said, as if now he understood. “I’m sorry.”

She propped herself up on one elbow and peered at him in the darkness. “What is that supposed to mean?” she shot back.

“Well, but—how did you know? Surely he didn’t tell you he was.”

“I’m a scientist, Calvin, remember? I knew. Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with homosexuality; it’s completely normal— a basic fact of human biology. I have no idea why people don’t know this. Does no one read Margaret Mead anymore? The point is, I knew John was a homosexual, and he knew I knew. We talked about it. He didn’t choose it; it was simply part of who he was. The best part was,” she said wistfully, “he knew about me, too.”

“Knew you were—”

“A scientist!” Elizabeth snapped. “Look, I realize this may be hard for you to fathom given your own terrible circumstances, but while we may be born into families, it doesn’t necessarily mean we belong to them.”

“But we do—”

“No. You need to understand this, Calvin. People like my father preach love but are filled with hate. Anyone who threatens their narrow beliefs cannot be tolerated. The day my mother caught my brother holding hands with another boy, that was it. After a year of hearing that he was an aberration and didn’t deserve to live, he went out to the shed with a rope.”

She said it in a too-high voice, the way one does when one is trying very hard not to cry. He reached for her and she let him take her in his arms.

“How old were you?” he asked.

“Ten,” she said. “John was seventeen.”

“Tell me more about him,” he coaxed. “What was he like?”

“Oh, you know,” she mumbled. “Kind. Protective. John was the one who read to me every night, bandaged my skinned knees, taught me how to read and write. We moved a lot and I never really got any good at making friends, but I had John. We spent most of our time at the library. It became our sanctuary—the only thing we could count on from town to town. Sort of funny now that I think about it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Because my parents were in the sanctuary business.” He nodded.

“One thing I’ve learned, Calvin: people will always yearn for a simple solution to their complicated problems. It’s a lot easier to have faith in

something you can’t see, can’t touch, can’t explain, and can’t change, rather than to have faith in something you actually can.” She sighed. “One’s self, I mean.” She tensed her stomach.

They lay silently, both wading in the misery of their pasts. “Where are your parents now?”

“My father’s in prison. One of his signs from God ended up killing three people. As for my mother, she divorced, remarried, and moved to Brazil. No extradition laws there. Did I mention my parents never paid taxes?”

Calvin let loose a long, low whistle. When one is raised on a steady diet of sorrow, it’s hard to imagine that others might have had an even larger serving.

“So after your brother…died…it was just you and your parents—”

“No,” she interrupted. “Just me. My parents were often gone for weeks at a time, and without John I had to become self-sufficient. So I did. I taught myself to cook and do small house repairs.”

“And school?”

“I already told you— I went to the library.” “That’s it?”

She turned toward him. “That’s it.”

They lay together like felled trees. From several blocks away, a church bell tolled.

“When I was a kid,” Calvin said quietly, “I used to tell myself every day was new. That anything could happen.”

She took his hand again. “Did it help?”

His mouth sagged as he remembered what the bishop at the boys home had revealed to him about his father. “I guess I’m just saying we shouldn’t let ourselves get stuck in the past.”

She nodded, imagining a newly orphaned boy trying to convince himself of a brighter future. That had to be a special brand of bravery, for a child to endure the worst, and despite every law in the universe and all evidence to the contrary, decide the next day might be better.

Every day is new,” Calvin repeated as if he were still that child. But the memory of what he’d learned about his father still proved too much for

him and he stopped. “Look, I’m tired. Let’s call it a day.” “We should get some sleep,” she said, not yawning.

“We can talk about this another time,” he said, depressed. “Maybe tomorrow,” she lied.

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