Chapter no 7 – Six-Thirty

Lesson, in Chemistry

Many people go to breeders to find a dog, and others to the pound, but sometimes, especially when it’s really meant to be, the right dog finds you.

It was a Saturday evening, about a month later, and Elizabeth had run down to the local deli to get something for dinner. As she left the store, her arms laden with a large salami and a bag of groceries, a mangy, smelly dog, hidden in the shadows of the alley, watched her walk by. Although the dog hadn’t moved in five hours, he took one look at her, pulled himself up, and followed.

Calvin happened to be at the window when he saw Elizabeth strolling toward the house, a dog following a respectful five paces behind, and as he watched her walk, a strange shudder swept through his body. “Elizabeth Zott, you’re going to change the world,” he heard himself say. And the moment he said it, he knew it was true. She was going to do something so revolutionary, so necessary, that her name—despite a never-ending legion of naysayers—would be immortalized. And as if to prove that point, today she had her first follower.

“Who’s your friend?” he called out to her, shaking off the odd feeling. “It’s six thirty,” she called back after glancing at her wrist.

Six-Thirty was badly in need of a bath. Tall, gray, thin, and covered with barbed-wire-like fur that made him look as if he’d barely survived

electrocution, he stood very still as they shampooed him, his gaze fixed on Elizabeth.

“I guess we should try to find his owner,” Elizabeth said reluctantly. “I’m sure someone is worried to death.”

“This dog doesn’t have an owner,” Calvin assured her, and he was right. Later calls to the pound and listings in the newspaper’s lost and found column turned up nothing. But even if it had, Six-Thirty had already made his intentions clear: to stay.

In fact, “stay” was the first word he learned, although within weeks, he also learned at least five others. That was what surprised Elizabeth most— Six-Thirty’s ability to learn.

“Do you think he’s unusual?” she asked Calvin more than once. “He seems to pick things up so quickly.”

“He’s grateful,” Calvin said. “He wants to please us.”

But Elizabeth was right: Six-Thirty had been trained to pick things up quickly.

Bombs, specifically.

Before he’d ended up in that alley, he’d been a canine bomb-sniffer trainee at Camp Pendleton, the local marine base. Unfortunately, he’d failed miserably. Not only could he never seem to sniff out the bomb in time, but he also had to endure the praise heaped upon the smug German shepherds who always did. He was eventually discharged—not honorably—by his angry handler, who drove him out to the highway and dumped him in the middle of nowhere. Two weeks later he found his way to that alley. Two weeks and five hours later, he was being shampooed by Elizabeth and she was calling him Six-Thirty.

“Are you sure we can take him to Hastings?” Elizabeth asked when Calvin loaded him into the car on Monday morning.

“Sure, why not?”

“Because I’ve never seen another dog at work. Besides the labs aren’t really that safe.”

“We’ll keep a close eye on him,” Calvin said. “It’s not healthy for a dog to be left alone all day. He needs stimulation.”

This time it was Calvin who was right. Six-Thirty had loved Camp Pendleton, partly because he was never alone, but mostly because it had given him something he’d never had before: purpose. But there’d been a problem.

A bomb-sniffing dog had two choices: find the bomb in time to allow disarmament (preferred), or throw himself on the bomb, making the ultimate sacrifice to save the unit (not preferred, although it did come with a posthumous medal). In training, the bombs were only ever fake, so if a dog did throw himself upon it, the most he might get was a noisy explosion followed by a huge burst of red paint.

It was the noise; it scared Six-Thirty to death. So each day, when his handler commanded him to “Find it,” he would immediately take off to the east, even though his nose had already informed him that the bomb was fifty yards to the west, poking his nose at various rocks while he waited for one of the other, braver dogs to finally find the damn thing and receive his reward biscuit. Unless the dog was too late or too rough and the bomb exploded; then the dog only got a bath.

“You can’t have a dog here, Dr. Evans,” Miss Frask explained to Calvin. “We’ve gotten complaints.”

“No one’s complained to me,” Calvin said, shrugging, even though he knew no one would dare.

Frask backed off immediately.

Within a few weeks, Six-Thirty made a full inventory of the Hastings campus, memorizing every floor, room, and exit, like a firefighter preparing for catastrophe. When it came to Elizabeth Zott, he was on high alert. She’d suffered in her past—he could sense it—and he was determined she should never suffer again.

It was the same for Elizabeth. She sensed that Six-Thirty had also suffered beyond the usual dog-left-by-the-roadside neglect, and she, too, felt the need to protect him. In fact, it was she who insisted that he sleep next to their bed even though Calvin had suggested he might be better off in the kitchen. But Elizabeth won out and he stayed, completely content, except for those times when Calvin and Elizabeth locked their limbs in a messy tangle, their clumsy movements punctuated with panting noises. Animals did this too, but with far more efficiency. Humans, Six-Thirty noticed, had a tendency to overcomplicate.

If these encounters took place in the early morning, Elizabeth would rise soon after to go make breakfast. Although she’d originally agreed to cook dinner five nights a week in exchange for rent, she also added breakfast, then lunch. For Elizabeth, cooking wasn’t some preordained feminine duty. As she’d told Calvin, cooking was chemistry. That’s because cooking actually is chemistry.

@200° C/35 min = loss of one H2O per mol. sucrose; total 4 in 55 min

= C24H36O18 she wrote in a notebook. “So that’s why the biscuit batter is off.” She tapped her pencil against the countertop. “Still too many water molecules.”

“How’s it going?” Calvin called from the next room.

“Almost lost an atom in the isomerization process,” she called back. “I think I’ll make something else. Are you watching Jack?”

She meant Jack LaLanne, the famous TV fitness guru, a self-made health aficionado who encouraged people to take better care of their bodies. She didn’t really have to ask—she could hear Jack shouting “Up down up down” like a human yo-yo.

“I am,” Calvin called back, breathless, as Jack demanded ten more. “Join us?”

“I’m denaturing protein,” she shouted.

“And now, running in place,” urged Jack.

Despite what Jack said, running in place was the one thing Calvin would not do. Instead he did extra sit-ups while Jack ran in place in what very much looked like ballet slippers. Calvin didn’t see the point of running indoors in ballet slippers; instead, he always did his running outside in tennis shoes. This made him an early jogger, meaning that he jogged long before jogging was popular, long before it was even called jogging. Unfortunately, because others were unfamiliar with this jogging concept, the police precinct received a steady stream of calls regarding a barely clad man running through neighborhoods blowing short, hard bursts of air out between his purplish lips. Since Calvin always ran the same four or five routes, police soon became accustomed to these calls. “That’s not a criminal,” they’d say. “That’s just Calvin. He doesn’t like to run in place in ballet slippers.

“Elizabeth?” he called again. “Where’s Six-Thirty? Happy’s on.”

Happy was Jack LaLanne’s dog. Sometimes he was on the show, sometimes he wasn’t, but when he was, Six-Thirty always left the room. Elizabeth sensed there was something about the German shepherd that made Six-Thirty unhappy.

“He’s with me,” she called back.

Holding an egg in the palm of her hand, she turned to him. “Here’s a tip, Six-Thirty: never crack eggs on the side of a bowl—it increases the chance of shell fragments. Better to bring a sharp, thin knife down on the egg as if you’re cracking a whip. See?” she said, as the egg’s contents slipped into the bowl.

Six-Thirty watched without blinking.

“Now I’m disrupting the egg’s internal bonds in order to elongate the amino acid chain,” she told him as she whisked, “which will allow the freed atoms to bond with other similarly freed atoms. Then I’ll reconstitute the mix into a loose whole, laying it on a surface of iron-carbon alloy, where I’ll subject it to precision heat, continually agitating the mix until it reaches a stage of near coagulation.”

“LaLanne is an animal,” Calvin announced as he wandered into the kitchen, his T-shirt damp.

“Agreed,” Elizabeth said as she took the frying pan off the flame and placed the eggs on two plates. “Because humans are animals. Technically. Although sometimes I think the animals we consider animals are far more advanced than the animals we are but don’t consider ourselves to be.” She looked to Six-Thirty for confirmation, but even he couldn’t parse that one.

“Well, Jack gave me an idea,” Calvin said, lowering his large frame into a chair, “and I think you’re going to love it. I’m going to teach you to row.”

“Pass the sodium chloride.”

“You’ll love it. We can row a pair together, maybe a double. We’ll watch the sun rise on the water.”

“Not really interested.”

“We can start tomorrow.”

Calvin still rowed three days a week, but only in a single. That wasn’t uncommon for elite rowers: once in a boat oared by teammates who seemed to know one another at a cellular level, they sometimes struggled to row with others. Elizabeth knew how much he missed his Cambridge boat. Still, she had no interest in rowing.

“I don’t want to. Besides, you row at four thirty in the morning.”

“I row at five o’clock,” he said as if this made it so much more reasonable. “I only leave the house at four thirty.”




“But why?”

“Because that’s when I sleep.”

“Easily solved. We’ll go to bed early.” “No.”

“First I’ll introduce you to the rowing machine—we call it the erg. They have some at the boathouse, but I’m going to build one for home use. Then we’ll move to a boat— a shell. By April we’ll be skimming across the bay, watching the sun rise, our long strokes clicking along in perfect unison.”

But even as he said it, Calvin knew the rowing part wasn’t possible. First, no one learns to row in a month. Most people, even with expert instruction, can’t row well within a year, or sometimes three years, or for many, ever. As for the skimming part—there is no skimming. To get to the point where rowing might resemble skimming, you’ve probably reached the Olympic level and the look on your face as you fly down the racecourse is not one of calm satisfaction but controlled agony. This is sometimes accompanied by a look of determination—usually one that indicates that right after this race is over, you plan to find a new sport. Still, once he’d hatched the idea, he loved it. Rowing a pair with Elizabeth. How glorious!


“But why?”

“Because. Women don’t row.” But as soon as she’d said it, she regretted


“Elizabeth Zott,” he said, surprised. “Are you actually saying women

can’t row?”

That sealed it.

The next morning they left their bungalow in the dark, Calvin in his old T-shirt and sweatpants, Elizabeth in whatever she could find that looked remotely sporty. As they pulled up to the boathouse, both Six-Thirty and Elizabeth looked out the car window to see a few bodies on a slick dock doing calisthenics.

“Shouldn’t they be doing that inside?” she asked. “It’s still dark.” “On a morning like this?” It was foggy.

“I thought you didn’t like rain.” “This isn’t rain.”

For at least the fortieth time, Elizabeth found herself doubting this plan.

“We’ll start off easy,” Calvin said as he led her and Six-Thirty into the boathouse, a cavernous building that smelled of mildew and sweat. As they walked past rows of long wooden rowing shells layered to the ceiling like well-stacked toothpicks, Calvin nodded at a bedraggled-looking person who yawned and nodded back, conversation not yet possible. He stopped when he found what he was looking for— a rowing machine, the erg—which had been tucked in a corner. He pulled it out, positioning it in the middle of the bay between the stacks of boats.

“First things first,” he said. “Technique.” He sat down, then started to pull, his breaths quickly becoming a series of short torturous bursts that seemed neither easy nor fun. “The trick is to keep your wrists flat,” he huffed, “your knees down, your stomach muscles engaged, your—” But whatever else he said was lost in his urgency to breathe and within a few minutes, he seemed to forget Elizabeth was even there.

She slipped away, Six-Thirty at her side, and went to explore the boathouse, pausing in front of a rack holding a forest of oars so impossibly tall, it looked as if giants played here. Off to its side sat a large trophy case, the early morning light just beginning to reveal its stash of silver cups and old rowing uniforms, each a testament to those who had proven faster or more efficient or more indomitable, or possibly all three. Brave people, according to Calvin, who’d shown the kind of focus that put them first over the finish. Alongside the uniforms were photographs of strapping young men with gargantuan oars, but there was one other person, too: a jockey-sized man who looked as serious as he was small, his mouth fixed in a firm, grim line. The coxswain, Calvin had told her, the one who told the rowers what to do

and when to do it: take up the rate, make a turn, challenge another boat, go faster. She liked that a diminutive person held the reins to eight wild horses, his voice, their command; his hands, their rudder; his encouragements, their fuel.

She turned to watch as other rowers began to file in, each of them nodding in deference to Calvin as he continued to erg on the noisy machine, a few revealing a trace of envy as he took up the stroke rate with such obvious smoothness that even Elizabeth could recognize it as a sign of natural athleticism.

“When are you going to row with us, Evans?” said one of them, clapping him on the shoulder. “We’ll put that energy to good use!” But if Calvin heard or felt anything, he didn’t react. He kept his eyes forward, his body steady.

So, she thought, he was a legend here, too. It was obvious, not only in their deference, but in the obsequious manner in which they tried to work around him and his ridiculous position—Calvin had placed the rowing machine right in the middle of the boathouse floor. The coxswain, clearly annoyed, assessed the situation.

“Hands on!” he called to his eight rowers, causing them to jump into position on one side of their shell, their bodies braced to pick up the heavy boat. “Slide it out,” he commanded. “In two, up to shoulders.”

But it was obvious they weren’t going anywhere—not with Calvin in the middle.

“Calvin,” Elizabeth whispered urgently, scuttling up behind him. “You’re in the way. You need to move.” But he just kept erging.

“Jesus,” said the coxswain, blowing air out between his lips. “This guy.” He glanced at Elizabeth, then thumbed her sharply out of the way, taking up a crouched position directly behind Calvin’s left ear.

“Atta boy, Cal,” he growled, “keep the length, you son of a bitch. We’ve got five hundred to go and you’re not done yet. Oxford is coming up on starboard and they’re starting to walk.”

Elizabeth looked at him, astonished. “Excuse me, but—” she started.

“I know this ain’t all you got, Evans,” he snarled, cutting her off. “Don’t hold out on me, you fucking machine; in two I’m calling for a power twenty, in two, on my call, you’re gonna put these Oxford sons of bitches to bed; you’re gonna make these boys wish they were already dead; you’re gonna kill ’em, Evans, wind it up, brother, we’re at a thirty-two on our way to fucking forty, on my call: there’s one, there’s two, take it up, POWER TWENTY YOU MOTHERFUCKER!” he screamed. “RIGHT NOW!”

Elizabeth didn’t know what was more shocking: the little man’s language or the intensity with which Calvin reacted to that language. Within moments of hearing the words “you fucking machine” and “sons of bitches,” Calvin’s face took on a crazed look usually not seen outside of low-budget zombie films. He pulled harder and faster, his exhales so loud, he sounded like a runaway train, and yet the little man was not satisfied; he kept yelling at Calvin, demanding more and getting more as he counted down the strokes like an angry stopwatch: Twenty! Fifteen! Ten! Five! And then the count evaporated and all that was left were two simple words that Elizabeth couldn’t agree with more.

“Way enough,” the coxswain said. Upon which Calvin slumped heavily forward as if he’d been shot in the back.

“Calvin!” Elizabeth cried, rushing to his side. “My god!”

“He’s fine,” the coxswain said. “Aren’t you, Cal? Now move this fucking machine out of our fucking way.”

And Calvin nodded, sucking in oxygen. “Sure…thing…Sam,” he panted between gulps of air, “and…thanks…. But…first…I’d…like… you…to meet…Eliz…Eliz…Elizabeth Zott. My…new…pair…partner.”

Immediately Elizabeth felt all eyes in the boathouse upon her.

“A pair with Evans,” one of the rowers said, his eyes wide. “What’d you do? Win a gold medal in the Olympics?”


“You’ve rowed on a women’s team, then?” the coxswain asked, taking interest.

“Well, no, I’ve never really—” And then she stopped. “There are

women’s teams?”

“She’s learning,” Calvin explained as he began to catch his breath. “But she already has what it takes.” He inhaled deeply, then got off the machine and started to drag it out of the way. “By summer we’ll be wiping the bay with all of you.”

Elizabeth wasn’t sure what that meant exactly. Wiping the bay? He didn’t actually mean compete, did he? What happened to watching the sunrise?

“Well,” she said quietly, turning toward the coxswain, as Calvin went to towel off. “I’m not sure this is really my—”

“It is,” the coxswain interrupted before she could finish. “Evans would never ask anyone to be in a boat with him if they couldn’t hold their own.” And then he closed one eye and squinted. “Yeah. I see it too.”

“What?” she said, surprised. But he’d already turned away, barking out orders for the boat to be walked down to the dock. “One foot in,” she heard him yell, “and down.” And within moments, the boat disappeared into a thick fog, the men’s faces oddly eager despite the first fat drops of a cold rain warning of the discomfort that was yet to come.

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