Chasing Zero by Jean Ryan


Chasing Zero

by Jean Ryan

Garret has a head cold. Naturally he’s in a foul mood. His world has stopped.

His supervisors won’t be happy either. They need his nose, and especially now. There’s a big contract looming and they want the formula he’s been working on: an energy drink for a new company called Game On. Other flavorists could fill in, but when it comes to crafting power potions no one is better than Garret.
Energy drinks, Garret says, don’t have to taste great, they just need something that suggests potency: spikey notes, a punishing edge. Carbonation is not enough. Garret is working with a chemical that makes your tongue tingle, along with another compound that turns your lips numb, at least for a minute or two.

He works for Perception, the biggest company in this city. They’ve been making flavors and fragrances forever, and on days the wind doesn’t blow you can smell all sorts of things. Some days it’s bubble gum, as if there’s a big pink tent of the stuff stretched above our heads; other days, the odor of Peking Duck wafts through our doors and windows.

Most of our friends work at the plant (I say “our,” but they’re really Garret’s friends). Every month or so Randy, Koby, Guy and Christie come over for pizza and beer. Randy is married, though I’ve never seen his wife. Koby and Guy are single—no mystery to me. The oddest duck is Christie. Built like a wrestler, she’s a one-of-the-guys kind of girl—swears like a sailor, loves to watch football, uses the word “dude” too much. Her hair is platinum and she has a fake tan, but she’s a long way from pretty. They always stay late, talking politics or sports or movies—anything but work. Firms that buy flavors from Perception are not keen on people knowing what deals they’ve made with the company, so everything is done on the QT. The smallest slip of the tongue and you’re gone. Secrecy is such a big deal that outside the plant, co-workers don’t mention their work, even to each other. Still, I’ve learned plenty. I’ve lived with Garret for over two years and he’s told me some things you wouldn’t believe, like why a certain company’s French fries taste so good. I’m saving all these tidbits. I write them down in a little spiral notebook that I keep under the bathroom sink in a box of tampons. Lately, Garret hasn’t been sharing any secrets and I bet he wishes he’d never confided in me. I want to think he stays with me out of love, but who knows?

I am at the kitchen counter quartering some nice fat Chandler strawberries. “Do you want some of these?” I ask.

He lowers the newspaper and looks at the bright heap of berries on the cutting board. “No thanks.”

“Well, you have to eat something—you’re sick. You want some toast?”

He frowns, considers. “Yeah, okay.”

Garret is afraid of colds; he’d sooner suffer a broken arm. He starts thinking he’ll never be able to smell again and I have to keep assuring him that he’ll be fine.

The nose is everything, I’ve learned. We taste with our noses. We discover with our noses. We remember with our noses. The brain, Garret says, began with the nose.

My friend Dawna fell in love with a psychiatrist. He made good money and he was reasonably attractive, but she wound up leaving him because she couldn’t shake the fear that he was analyzing her. I know what she went through. Living with Garret, I worry about how I smell, especially, you know, certain times of the month. As you can imagine, I’m extra careful, and not just with that. I get my teeth cleaned four times a year now.

I pop a slice of multi-grain into the toaster and pour a glass of orange juice, and then I use the tip of my knife to turn a strawberry into a little red fan, which I place on Garret’s plate.

I look at food differently now; I think about the insides, the chemistry. There’s a lot going on in this berry, hundreds of different molecules, some we can smell, some we can’t—unless something is evaporating we can’t smell it at all. In Garret’s lab at the plant there are thousands of little brown bottles filled with different flavors. One time he brought one home for me that smelled just like a Mojito. He was proud of that one. I think they turned it into a breath mint.

It takes a lot of expensive equipment to break down the chemical structure of something and then figure out which molecules matter most. At Perception they call this process “chasing zero” and it can take years. Sometimes it feels like that’s what I’m doing with Garret, trying to get to the truth of him. I listen to everything he says, even when he’s just complaining, even when he’s had too many Bud Lights; I watch how he eats his dinner, which foods he goes for first, what he leaves behind; I study the positions he sleeps in, the way he shoves a fist under his chin; I even open my eyes when we’re having sex so I can see the expressions on his face. He grimaces a lot, makes faces that used to scare me. Sex is strange business.


After Garret leaves for work I feed the turtles. One strawberry apiece, plus a turnip leaf, a slice of mushroom and an earthworm. Richard always goes for the live food first; Liz goes for the most colorful—she loves berries.

Garret is not much interested in these turtles. He inherited Richard from a friend who died and I think he’s still resentful of the care involved (even though I’m the one doing all the caring). Richard was a bachelor when I moved in. He spent his days moving back and forth between a shallow pan of water and the clay pot he hid under. The first time I saw him, alone in that big wooden box, I couldn’t understand.

“You just have the one?” I asked, turning to Garret.

“He eats,” Garret shrugged. “He’s fine.”

I did not believe that. I will never believe that. I read an article once about a man in California who wanted to stage a live nativity scene. He somehow acquired a camel for this purpose, which he decided to keep as a pet. This guy had plenty of land, the climate was suitable and there were no prohibitive zoning laws. Below the story was a photograph: this large improbable beast with a chainlink fence in front of him and vineyards in the distance. The new owner was standing a few feet away, pointing at the animal, a wide stupid grin on his face. And all I could think was how awful it would be to never again see your own kind, to be, as far as you knew, the last camel on earth.

Garret wasn’t thrilled about getting another turtle, but when I told him I didn’t mind being the one to clean up after them, he relented. An hour later I walked into The Turtle Club—the pet store where Garret buys Richard’s crickets and cuttlebones—and there she was, a female Chinese box turtle posed on a branch in her tank, waiting for me. I brought my face close to the glass and she pulled her neck out of her shell and we got a good look at each other. She was even prettier than Richard. Her glossy shell was the color of dark honey and vivid yellow streaks ran down her neck from the back of each eye. The top of her head was brown, her cheeks were golden. Her expression was calm, resolute, infinitely patient, and my adoration was swift and fierce. I wanted to know what she knew.

Richard, I assumed, would be thrilled to have a mate, which is why I named her Liz. I wanted to see how quickly he’d come to her, so I set her down a couple feet away from him, stood back and waited. I am still waiting.

Two springs have passed and Richard, to my knowledge, has never approached Liz. When she noses up to him, he gradually turns his shelled back to her. And he does something else now that Garret swears he never did before: Every once in a while he stands up against the wall of his enclosure and hangs there for several minutes, as if asking, in his silent turtle way, for help. I don’t like it when he does this and I tell myself that he is just stretching.

I wonder if he took an instant dislike to her, if Liz is simply not the mate he had in mind. I imagine myself as a pet: a great hand setting me in front of the only man there is. “Mate,” says The Hand. What if that man disgusted me—worse, what if I disgusted him?

Time is what turtles have in abundance and maybe that’s why they’re slow to court. I still have hope for these two. I picture the day when I look into their box and find Richard on top of Liz. I can’t speak for her, but it would mean a lot to me.


Washing the breakfast dishes, I manage not to drop or break one. I have a condition, something no one can seem to figure out. My hands will be fine and suddenly they won’t; they’ll start to twitch and tremble, and I have to stop what I’m doing until they go still again. Sometimes the spells last only a minute or two; other times my hands shake all afternoon. It’s not MS and it’s not Parkinson’s. One doctor said it could be an auto-immune disorder too new for a name. Garret says it’s all in my head.

Naturally I had to quit my job. I made $64,000 a year as a dental hygienist, along with full medical coverage and free dental care. Now I have no insurance at all. If we were married, I could get on Garret’s plan, but he hasn’t made the offer.

When my hands first started to go wrong, he was concerned; he even went to a couple appointments with me. But after three months, six doctors and I don’t know how many tests, he started getting annoyed. Now I don’t dare talk about my hands; without insurance there’s not much I can do about them anyway.

He wants to leave me, but I have this ailment and no income, and he feels trapped. That’s what I think. He was getting bored with me even before this happened. He was all set to dump me, then this.

And the things he’s told me, all those trade secrets he wasn’t supposed to share. All it would take is one measly letter to the editor, a little human interest story about who buys what. You can bet he’s thought about that.


Hell’s Kitchen. That’s what Dawna calls the company Garret works for. “No good comes out of that place,” she said, which is something I told Garret one day, kiddingly, and he about went nuts. (He doesn’t like her anyway. Dawna is overweight, and fat people irritate him. Garret himself is lean as a race dog.) I started to defend her, saying that some folks just like to go natural.
“Does the cow know that there is no molecular difference between a synthesized extract and a natural one?”

I turned back to the laundry I was folding. I wished I’d never said anything.

“Does she have any idea what would happen to the vanilla bean crop if that’s all we used? What a stupid bitch.” Garret has told me about vanilla, how it’s the world’s favorite flavor, and thousands of tons of it are made from things like wood pulp waste and petrochemicals. You can even make it out of cow dung. Think about that next time you reach for a sugar cookie. Same thing with citrus—the key ingredient, citral, is found is all sorts of plants. The lemon sorbet in your freezer probably started out as a Chinese mountain pepper.

Never say “artificial” around Garret. He hates that word. He says that’s where all the trouble started. “Crafted” is the term he and his buddies use. Another thing that makes him mad is when people assume that all they do at Perception is make bad food taste good. I came home one day with a package of white cheddar rice cakes and he poked a finger at it and said, “You know what these would taste like without the flavoring? They’d taste like baseboard.” I don’t blame him for being prideful. Along with creating the magic behind French fries and Easter candy, Perception makes good things taste better, which is pretty significant when you consider how hard it can be to get old people and cancer patients to gag down anything.
Dawna doesn’t care that Garret doesn’t like her—she feels the same way about him, which is why she only comes by when he’s working. She thinks he doesn’t treat me right. She says I have self-esteem issues from being a foster child and that’s why I put up with him. I have my doubts about that. For one thing, my foster parents—I had three sets—were not terrible. In fact, after hearing what some kids suffer at the hands of their real parents, I’m glad I didn’t come from one of those Leave It To Beaver homes. I lived in apartments here in Cincinnati, and yeah they were kind of crummy, but I had enough to eat and decent clothes, and I liked my last mother a lot. Her name was Bonnie. She was good at making the most of things. One day I came home and found her cutting up the newspaper. She was folding the pages into little fans and cutting notches to make snowflakes; the living room window was covered with them. She looked up at me and said, “You have to make your own fun in this world, Emily. It’s nobody’s fault but your own if you don’t.” I have a brother but I don’t know where he is—I do feel sad about that. The other thing that’s hard—especially when I’m filling out medical forms—is not having a clue about what diseases my parents had. (On the other hand, maybe it’s better this way: if I knew what ailments I could get, I might start waiting for them.) I wonder sometimes if my mother’s hands shook like mine, and if so, did anyone find out why.
I’ve told Dawna that Garret has a tender side she doesn’t see. When his dog Ace had to be put down last year, Garret cried for three days; and he calls his mother every other week no matter what; and when I talk to him he listens, which is something most guys aren’t good at. Garret isn’t the best sex I’ve ever had, but we do pretty well—except for lately. I’ve been renting porn to spice things up and it helps a lot. Say what you want about porn films—they’re demeaning to women (I think they’re demeaning to both sexes), the actors have pimples, the acting is awful—all that’s true, but a lot of people have jobs thanks to this industry and if it puts people back in the bedroom, well what’s wrong with that?

I did tell Dawna that Garret’s been acting more remote, not talking very much, and she shrugged. “Doesn’t surprise me,” she said.

“I’m worried that he might want to break up with me but he feels bad about me losing my job. And, you know, my hands.” I looked up from the dishwasher I was unloading. “What do you think?”

Dawna leaned back in her chair and shook her head. “I don’t think his conscience is that keen, sweetheart.” She gestured at the dishwasher. “You cook his meals, you wash his clothes, you do the shopping—you even take care of his damn turtles. Why would he want you to leave?” I didn’t say anything.

I’m used to how blunt Dawna can be. “I wouldn’t count on him marrying you though,” she added.

I shoved the dishwasher door shut. “Who says I’m looking to get married? I’m not. Things are fine the way they are.” This is a lie. I’d marry Garret in a heartbeat, and not just for his insurance. I love him beyond reason.

“Good.” She folded her arms over her ample bosom and studied me with a small, knowing smile. Dawna is my best friend and nobody’s fool.


In the summer Garret puts the turtle pen outside so that they can get some sun on their backs. Even though box turtles hibernate in the winter, it gets too cold here for the Chinese variety, so in the fall they have to come back inside and sit under basking lamps to make up for the sun. The lamps and other lights keep their enclosure at 75 degrees—any lower and they’d “brumate,” which is like a false hibernation where they stop eating but keep using up fat and energy, meaning they could die. Keeping box turtles inside shortens their lives, but what can you do? It’s not a perfect world for any of us.
Turtles are not near as rugged as they look. They get parasites and respiratory infections and funguses, and they dehydrate easily, which is why Richard and Liz spend so much time in their water pans. I have to wash out these pans every day and mist the pen with spring water, and every other week I switch out the bark. I don’t mind any of this; I like giving the turtles a fresh start. They have to live their whole lives in a four-by-three-foot box and keeping it nice is a way of apologizing. In the fall I tuck in a few pine cones, also rocks and branches. These objects may not fool them, but deep inside their leathery bodies, where the healing happens, I think the turtles are soothed.

I am partial to Liz. I love her face. I know that turtles don’t really smile, but the way Liz’s beak is shaped, you’d swear that’s what she’s doing. I look at her and smile myself, and every so often I place my hand on her back and let it rest there. Liz is just under six inches long and her plated shell fits sweetly in my palm. Maybe some of what she knows is being transmitted into my skin. Maybe touch is a language we don’t know the half of.
Richard is an inch longer and he never smiles. I guess he can’t.


I finish the vacuuming, then sit down at the kitchen table and look over a community college catalog we got in the mail. I’m thirty-six, still young enough to pick and choose. Garret told me one time that I should do something different with my life. “You’re smart,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to clean teeth for a living.” Garret never gave me much credit for being a dental hygienist, even though I made plenty of money and liked what I did.

“Doesn’t it gross you out?” he said, not long after we met. “All those rotten mouths.” He shuddered.

“They’re not all rotten,” I told him, “and no it doesn’t gross me out.”

Garret gave me a long look, his dark eyes pinning me —he’s a handsome man, no one would argue that. He shook his head and frowned. “That’s just weird.”

I turn the pages slowly, overwhelmed by the range of careers, the fact that I can sit at this table and pick a life out of a catalog. Hazard one and I ruin the rest. I might as well put on a blindfold and choose with my finger. Only I can’t. I have to think about jobs that don’t ask too much of my hands.
Bakery Chef. Accountant. Teacher’s Assistant. Hotel Manager. I like to cook but I suppose that’s off the table. Accounting? Too much typing. Just as I start to imagine myself looking after children on a playground, my hands start to quiver. I hold them out in front of me and watch them move on their own. My heart pounds. It’s happening more. This is the fourth time in the last three days. I shove my hands under my thighs and take deep breaths, try to think of something else.

It feels like I am lost and there is no one looking for me.


This summer Garret went on another “Flavor Hunt.” Every three years Perception’s key players get to go to places like Indonesia and South America, where they rifle the jungles for the next great taste sensation. I can understand Garret’s participation in this; what I can’t figure out is why they asked Christie to come along. Christie works with soy products, tries to make them taste like the burgers or sausages they’re pretending to be. Last year she supposedly hit a homerun with “Wonder Dogs”—I tried them and, believe me, she’s not there yet.

With scientists around the world ransacking what’s left of our rain forests, searching for everything from treats to treatments, you might think there’s not much left to work with. You’d be wrong. Garret says we have barely begun. Finding a new fruit isn’t the hard part. Turning it into something you actually want to eat or drink, that’s where the real work starts. Garret says that most exotic fruits taste awful. If they are not rejected right away, they are stripped down to zero and paired up with something we know and love—strawberries, peaches, bananas. Lots of exotics wind up nameless, used to bolster other products. That’s what happened with wild ginger—they figured out that it intensifies the pungency of spicy foods and cools off your tongue afterward.

I would love to go on one of these Flavor Hunts, travel over forest canopies in a hot air balloon, see how lemurs live. No way they’ll let me, though. Garret won’t even ask.


By the time Garret gets home my hands have stopped shaking and the chicken pot pies I made from scratch are ready to come out of oven. I pour him a beer and myself a glass of wine, and we sit down in the living room like we always do before dinner. He coughs a couple times and blows his priceless nose.
“How’d it go at work?” I ask.


“How do you feel? Can you taste that beer?”

“A little, yeah.” He takes a long pull on his Bud Light and sets it down on the coaster. Garret is neat, which I appreciate. He never leaves wet towels on the bathroom floor or whiskers in the sink. Actually there’s nothing out of place or extra in this sleek high-rise apartment. “He has no soul,” Dawna murmured the first time she saw it. Without looking up at me he says, “I need to tell you something.”

I can feel my heart speed up, my cheeks getting red. This is it, I tell myself, trying to prepare the part of me that will be hurt.

He lifts his gaze my way but can’t hold it there. He looks back at the bottle he is spinning on the coaster and tells me, in a rush, that he is in love with someone else.

My spine stiffens; already, thank god, I’m beginning to hate him. “Do I know her?”

“Yes, you do.” He looks up, almost defiant now. He aims, pauses, delivers. “It’s Christie.”

Christie? For one startling instant I see her: big thighs, gutter mouth; hair and tan just as fake as her hot dogs. I’m not exactly gorgeous but I’m a whole lot prettier than Christie. It takes me a moment to get my voice back.

“How long?”

“Since June.”

My mind does a fast calculation. June. That was the month they were in Paraguay. Screwing in the jungle. Screwing here too, evidently—next week is Thanksgiving.

“I wanted to tell you…” he trails off, takes another swig of beer.

“I understand.” I say. “You were chicken shit.”

His eyes narrow at this and he stands up and heads for the kitchen. “You know we haven’t been good for a long time,” he says, his voice accusing.

“At least since June,” I reply.


“Big surprise,” Dawna said when I told her about Garret’s confession. “Who is she, do you know?”

“Christie. His co-worker.”

Dawna’s mouth opened. “The one who comes over? The butch?”

I nodded. “That’s the one.”

Dawna frowned and looked out the window. “Guys will screw anything.”

Loathing moved through me when she said this. All I could think about were those adult films I’d been renting the last couple months. The bastard had been getting Christie, me and porn.

We were sitting at the table in her kitchen, a large warm, rather messy room that comforted me—the plants rooting in jars over the sink, the hanging wire baskets with their browning bananas and sprouting potatoes; the canisters of rice and noodles, grains I couldn’t name; three or four loaves of bread on the shelf—raisin, sourdough, pumpernickel. There was bounty in this room; the kitchens I grew up in were nothing like this.

It took Dawna about half a second to invite me to move in with her.

I shook my head, “That is so nice, Dawna, but I can’t let you do that.”

“Oh? Where are you going to go then?”

“I don’t want to be in the way.”

“I have this whole house,” she said, “and look at you—you’re no bigger than a minute.”

“I don’t have a job.” I said. “Not at the moment anyway.”

“Yes, you do—if you want it. I need someone to help with the dogs. I could teach you.” Dawna owns a mobile pet grooming service; considering the five employees she already has and this house she bought last year, she must be doing pretty well for herself.

“You don’t like it, no big deal. You can do it till you find something else.” She reached out then and touched my arm. “And don’t worry about your hands. The dogs shake so much they won’t even notice.” She smiled at me. “You’re going to get better, kiddo. You just need to get out of that apartment.”


There’s not much of mine at Garret’s place and leaving doesn’t take long. The only thing I need help with is the turtle pen, which Dawna helps me carry into the elevator, across the lobby and down the steps. Carefully we shove it into the dog grooming van. Richard and Liz are hiding in their flower pots. His back is facing out, but Liz is looking at me, her head tucked partway in her shell. She trusts me. I’m moving her life someplace else and she is willing to cooperate.
The turtles were all I wanted and Garret had no problem letting me have them. At first I was only going to take Liz. I didn’t want her to live in the same box with a male who ignored her. I would get her a new box, a real mate. Then I thought: What if Richard is ready? What if two years is not so much time for a turtle to make his move? So I decided to give him another year. If he doesn’t come forward in a year, I’ll put another male in there and let him take over. Then I thought: maybe that’s what Richard needs, a contender. Maybe it’s not his fault that the urge to reproduce hasn’t kicked in—he just needs to fight for Liz.
Dawna doesn’t give me a chance to get weepy. We are in and out of Garret’s apartment in less than half an hour. I clear out my drawers in the bedroom, my clothes from the closet, the stuff I keep in the bathroom. The last thing I do is pull that little spiral notebook out of the tampon box and prop it against the mirror. Then I take a piece of note paper out of my purse and write: Yes, I made a copy. I draw a happy face and beneath that I write: Best of luck! Emily.

I didn’t make a copy—turns out I’m not that sort of person. I couldn’t resist writing the note, though. It’s like Bonnie said, you have to make your own fun in this world.


Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in Napa, California. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. Nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize, she has also published a novel, LOST SISTER. Her debut collection of short stories, SURVIVAL SKILLS, was published in April 2013 by Ashland Creek Press and was short-listed for a Lambda Literary Award.