The Chemists

The following is an excerpt from Caleb Crain’s first novel, Necessary Errors, out next Tuesday, July 6. Crain’s novella “Sweet Grafton” appeared in Issue 6.

Melinda held up a folded letter. “I have my original introduction to the institute here. It says nothing about you, of course, but I find that it’s often of service to have a piece of paper of some kind, even if it isn’t strictly speaking pertinent.”

She was passing on to Jacob an English class that she had been teaching privately. The students were research chemists. Without meaning to, she had spontaneously privatized the lessons a month and a half before, by threatening to quit; the chemists had coaxed her to stay by offering to pay her in cash out of their own pockets.

In the lobby the floor was black marble, and there was an abstract brass sculpture, loopy and gobby, which, it occurred to Jacob, may have referred to the different shapes that electrons’ orbits are supposed to have: s, p, d, f. A small, thin man with flat blond hair rose from a banquette to greet them.

“Hello,” the man said, careful to give the English o the color that it didn’t have in Czech. “This is your friend?”

“My replacement, superior in every way. Ivan, Jacob. Jacob, Ivan.”

“We are hearing many good things about you,” Ivan continued. “We are very excited for your lessons.”

“I hope I don’t disappoint you too badly.”

“Pardon?” For a moment the man was at a loss. “Ah, you are joking, I see.” He laughed politely.

“He’s an excellent teacher,” Melinda interposed, and then, sotto voce, appearing to mumble to herself as she looked again into her purse, instructed Jacob: “No irony quite yet, darling.” Then, in a clearer voice: “Say, Ivan, I do have this letter still, if you think it will be of use.”

“Letter?” He glanced at it to puzzle out her meaning. “Oh, it will not be necessary. It is now a private arrangement.” He named the sum that the chemists were willing to pay for an hour’s lesson. Melinda had told Jacob the number in advance. It seemed almost too generous: if Jacob taught the chemists once a week, they would be paying him almost a third of what he earned at school. But Melinda had assured him that this was now the going rate for private English lessons.

“Brilliant,” Melinda said. “I shall abandon you to their mercies now, Jacob. Take good care of him, Ivan.”

“So soon?” Jacob asked. He meant for the question to sound humorous.

“Don’t worry, they’re awfully chatty,” she reassured him. “They’ll scarcely even let you teach them.” They embraced, and she was gone.

“Please,” Ivan said, and escorted Jacob down a hall. They walked past several signs forbidding visitors, past the entrance to what seemed to be a cafeteria, and through a set of double doors into a large conference room.

A gaudy, mildly asymmetric chandelier of chrome and glass, which would not have looked out of place at the top of a Christmas tree in an American shopping mall, hung over a long oval table of dark-stained maple. The bulbs of the chandelier were reflected dully in the table’s polish, and as Ivan led Jacob to the front of the room, this irregular constellation slid along the surface as if following him. The eyes of the institute’s chemists also followed. The chemists were sitting in deep, leather-cushioned chairs, winged with side headrests like the chairs of astronauts in movies. Ivan, who looked about thirty, seemed to be one of the youngest in the group. The oldest, in their seventies at least, wore white lab coats and were sitting together at the table’s far end; they politely suspended a conversation as Jacob entered. Thick curtains blocked the daylight from a row of tall windows. Behind Jacob there were carefully washed blackboards.

“This is a nice room,” Jacob said, trying to make the best of its heaviness.

“It was the director’s, but we have no director now,” said a tiny old man. His hair, dyed black, was neatly parted and combed, and the frames of his glasses were made of black plastic and steel. As he spoke, in a high and for a Czech unusually musical voice, with an almost German accent, he gestured with his liver-spotted hands. “Now it is the people’s.”

“Not the people’s,” corrected a man in his forties a few seats to the right of Jacob. He was wearing a suit that actually seemed to fit him, but he slouched in his chair and as he spoke scowled at his notebook like a teenager, as perhaps the effort of speaking English made him feel that he was.

“The people’s of chemistry!” the old man revised, and there were chuckles around the room, and whispers of surreptitious translation.

Ivan posed a grammatical question: “Is it correct to say ‘the people’s of chemistry’? Or should it be ‘the people of chemistry’s’?”

Jacob repeated the two phrases aloud. “Neither, actually,” he decided, and the chemists laughed as if this were a great joke. “I’d get around it by saying, ‘It belongs to the people of chemistry.’ Or, ‘it’s the scientists’ rather than the administrators’.’”

“The administrators,” the man in the nice suit echoed, still scowling, as if Jacob had just taught him the name of his enemies.

“This room is too fine for science,” said a plump old woman. She spoke very slowly, summoning up each word with a separate breath. The room was obliged to wait for her, and Jacob felt the pity that one feels when an older person tests a group’s patience without meaning to. The many lines in her face were soft and hesitant, like her voice. “We will ruin it,” she continued, “with our dirty fingers.” When she reached the last word, she smiled with relief at having finished and with pleasure at her own joke.

“What did they keep in the cabinets?” asked another chemist, swiveling in his chair with childish speed to point at a wall of them at the back of the room. The abstract quality of speech in a foreign language seemed to be making them giddy.

“Bones!” cried the tiny old man.

“The bones of the people of chemistry,” said the man in the nice suit.

“The bones,” the tiny old man resumed, in a further refinement, “of former administrators!”

Jacob asked the chemists to introduce themselves. They gave their first names, listening to one another attentively, while he jotted down a seating chart. The tiny old man was named Bohumil; the plump old woman, Zdenka; and the man in the suit, Pavel. Some spoke English brokenly; others, fluently, even expressively. Pavel, for example, spoke it as easily as he wore his suit, but with a certain brusqueness, as if his ease with such surfaces was an accomplishment he had until recently been holding back, and he still suspected that he could be attacked for it. Whenever he spoke, in the hour that followed, his scowl caused Jacob to worry that he was losing patience with the lesson, but Pavel never said anything to confirm this interpretation.

Jacob chose a lesson he had recently given to one of his intermediate classes, about the way word order changes when a question is embedded in another sentence. The chemists listened to a taped dialogue; they read from photocopied pages that Jacob passed around. As an exercise, they were then to take turns acting out a simple dialogue in pairs. One person was to ask his partner about an item, and then the partner was to ask why he was asking.

Jacob had learned the language teacher’s trick of selecting prompt words with an unexpected relevance. “The potatoes,” he prompted Ivan, who, proud of his role as Jacob’s escort, had seated himself beside Jacob.

“Frank, do you have the potatoes?” Ivan asked, anglicizing his neighbor’s name.

František, an older man, considered. “Why are you asking,” he began, and looked to Jacob, who nodded in encouragement, “me,” and waited for a second nod, “if I have the potatoes?”

“Great,” Jacob said.

“Because I cannot buy them in the store,” Ivan answered.

“The data,” Jacob said, hoping it was a word that the chemists used in their workaday conversations.

“Pavel, do you have the data?” asked a woman who, though young and pretty, wore a white lab coat as otherwise only the older chemists did.

“Why are you asking if I have the data?” Pavel returned, and he gave the line a hint of petulance, as if he really were a well-dressed man bickering with an attractive woman.

“Because the instruments are not accurate,” the woman said. The group hadn’t been expecting an extra line of dialogue from her, and they laughed.

“Pardon me,” said Pavel. “Can you say, please, what is the difference between ‘accurate’ and another word, ‘precise’?”

“What the difference is,” Jacob corrected, to stall for time.

“Ah yes. It is a question inside a sentence. Then, can you say what the difference is?”

Jacob felt the chemists’ eyes studying him. “Precise. Accurate,” he repeated, but he couldn’t hear the answer in his own voice, as he sometimes could. “Is there a difference?” he asked himself aloud.

“A colleague told me, that there was a difference,” Pavel said. He sounded anxious, as if he were afraid that Jacob might call his question foolish.

The room fell silent. Jacob wondered if it was a test. It occurred to him that since the chemists were paying him out of their own pockets, they had a right to find out if he knew what he was talking about. This might be the first time any of them had tried to exercise such a right.

“The colleague and I were discussing a number,” Pavel continued, all the while frowning. He did not look willing to release Jacob from the question. “I said that the number was accurate. He said, Yes, of course, but is it precise?”

Jacob saw the answer now, and in his relief also saw his questioner more clearly. Pavel’s hands were trembling. His question was a sort of public confession. He had been left at a disadvantage in a contest with another man, and he had carried the memory of the conversation with him for a long time afterward, the way a child carries a parent’s incautious remark if she senses that the parent will be reluctant to explain. He was not trying to test Jacob. He was hoping that Jacob would be able to pull the sting.

Jacob came up with an example. “Suppose that my temperature is thirty-nine point two.” He wrote the number on the blackboard. “If my thermometer says forty-one”—he wrote that number on the blackboard and then crossed it out—“it’s not accurate. If it says thirty-nine,”—he wrote a 39 beneath the crossed-out 41—“then it’s accurate but not precise.” He then added a decimal point and a 2 after the 39, and circled the full number. “But a reading of thirty-nine point two is accurate and precise. Thirty-nine point two five would be even more precise. And so on.”

Pavel nodded. There was a buzzing at either side of him as the words for temperature and thermometer were translated and as the scientists reminded one another that American numerals had periods where Czech numerals had commas.

Ivan raised his hand. “And if the thermometer says forty-one point seven eight, it is precise but not accurate?”

A few moments ago they had doubted Jacob; now he was in danger of becoming their oracle. “No,” Jacob pronounced. “I would know what you meant if you said that, but no. A precise measurement is always an accurate one.”

Pavel fell back into his astronaut’s chair. “I am accurate when I say that the words ‘precise’ and ‘accurate’ are the same. But I am more precise when I say, that they are different.”

The pretty young woman beside Pavel held her head for a few moments in perplexity. She dropped her hands into her lap when she understood. —That’s it, she congratulated him in Czech.

“Let’s get back to the exercise,” Jacob said, and they allowed him to return their attention to word order in interrogative relative clauses.

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