Chapter 4: November 2010

Hannah gathered a stack of folders into her arms and stood up.

“So, you’ll have the draft presentation ready by Thursday?” asked Dr. Bode.

“Of course!” replied Hannah. “It’s virtually finished at this point, I just need to look through these results and make the tables.”

“You might be surprised how long it takes you to make a good table. How can you say that you’re virtually finished when the thing that people are going to look at– and remember best– hasn’t even been started?” Solomon looked up from the page that he was writing on. staring right at Hannah. She did not flinch, as she was becoming accustomed to this stare and knew that its purpose was to draw her out, not push her down.

“I know how long it takes to make a good table. With the level of detail that I have put into our slides so far for this presentation and the amount of work that I have done in… curating this data, the presentation is virtually finished. How about your presentation?” She grinned.

“Don’t remind me,” he said, looking back down at his page. “It’s a fucking disaster. I’m hoping that all of the investors are listening to your presentation and that this little private meeting with a bunch of millionaires that Kofi threw together is just a formality.”

“Well, if I win them over then I’d better get something else out of the deal.”

Solomon chuckled. “I already pay you fifteen dollars an hour, Verilife built your sweet little Ghanaian village a hospital, and your name is on the first paper we’ve submitted. What else could you possibly want?”

“I want you to stop giving me such a hard time about a vacation that’s two months away.”

“You’re taking three weeks off! That’s three weeks that I have to do all the cells myself or hire someone that I don’t already know and trust to do it for me while you’re gallivanting across Africa.”

“Well, sorry if I wanted to spend some time with my friends and see this hospital for myself.”

Dr. Bode laid his pen down. “Knock those investors out and you can have as much time as you want going native. I’ll even get Kofi to arrange for them to make you an honorary member of the tribe or something. Isn’t that all you want for Christmas?”

Hannah rolled her eyes. “Ugh, don’t get me started on the politics of appropriation and overidentification with marginalized groups.”

“Trust me, that’s a mistake I only have to make once in my life.” He chuckled to himself. “Hey, do you want to go out to the waiting room and see if Adam and Kofi are here yet? You can just ask them to come back if you have to go.”

“Oh, are they coming today?”

“Yeah, it’s just bloodwork but since my chair has been reminding me that apparently we get paid more if I actually see the damn patients for a visit instead of just drawing their blood and talking to them in the hallway, so just make sure that he has vital signs written down somewhere.”

“Okay,” she said, putting all the folders in her backpack. She left the physician workroom in his office and walked down the hall to the waiting room, where she immediately noticed Jessi and Gainers.

“Hannah!” exclaimed Jessi, rising and extending her arms. “Fancy meeting you here.”

Hannah approached Jessi and hugged her. “It’s good to see you again! You getting excited for the big rally next month?”

“Girl, I just can’t handle the excitement. I was just down in Annapolis for the first time in years, and let me tell you– I was sweatin’ like a whore in church even though Delegate Howerton and I go way, way back.”

“You do?”

“Oh, she was a freshman when I was a senior in high school! But she went to law school when I went to the labor & delivery ward at Maryland General, so y’know I always felt a little intimidated.”

Hannah nodded. “I see. Well, she’s always advancing some kind of great progressive cause in the Maryland House, so that’s great.”

“Now, what she told me was that she’s almost sure that if they write in some phase-in bullsh– nonsense, they’ll get a few Republicans to sign on.”

“Phase-in?”  Hannah took a seat next to Gainers, who was painstakingly composing a text message by pressing each key with his index finger.

“Like, it would start in 2013 with the poorest and work its way up ‘til everyone was covered in 2016.”

“I don’t know how I like the sound of that.”

Jessi shook her head. “Me neither, but after what happened last time she told me that if we can just get this coalition together it’ll pass.”

“Anything else juicy and interesting?”

Jessi laughed. “You know about as much as me. The permits are all good for the rally downtown. I think we’ll get far more people than if we try to bus everyone down to Annapolis. Though no one likes a big group of black people in one place, if you know what I’m sayin’.”

“It’ll be peaceful, though, right?”

Jessi raised her eyebrows. “There’s always troublemakers. Someone’ll stir up somethin’ and the cops will jump in at the slightest provoking. You’d like to hope that everyone shows up for a good reason, but some people just got that mindset and when you get the crowd going, they decide it’s a good idea to throw a rock or steal some shoes or some other way of messin’ around. Some people just act so low class and ghetto and– the worst of it– there’s no amount of tellin’ they’ll listen to. No amount.”

Hannah, wincing internally at a comment that she thought she would only ever hear on AM talk radio, simply nodded.

Jessi continued. “…But I’ll bring as many people as I can who know who to look out for and how to keep these kinds of things settled.”

“Whatever… you think is best!”

“They gonna take my blood sometime soon? Gettin’ hungry here. All this feelin’ better gives me an appetite.” Gainers appeared to have finally finished his text message.

“Speaking of low class… we are gonna wait until we are called, Gainers.” Jessi cast her eyes towards Gainers with disapproval. “I apologize for my brother’s, uh, impatience.”

“No problem. I was supposed to find a certain patient…”

“Dr. Bode was looking for me?” came a voice from the other end of the room.

Hannah spun around and faced a young man that she barely recognized. His cheeks had filled out even as his eye sockets had sharpened– they were no longer edematous. His brown eyes looked healthier now that there was no hint of yellow in them. His T-shirt clung to his torso, which lacked the awkward bulge in his belly that he’d carried around before. His arms were noticeably thicker and his muscles defined. He smiled nervously.

“Yeah, he wanted to see you,” Hannah replied. “Something about getting paid for your visit.”

“The pleasure will be all mine, I’m sure.” Adam rolled his eyes.

“You can wait until your dad gets here,” said Hannah. “Is he, uh, parking or something?”

“No, I drove myself.”

“Really! That’s great.” Hannah smiled. “I didn’t realize you were…”

“Driving myself now? Yeah. My license had expired and I had to go through all this stuff to get it back. But it’s all taken care of now and I’m just… y’know, happy to not have to depend on my dad all the time for rides.”

“Great!” Hannah slung her backpack over her shoulder. “What are you reading there?”

“Cell biology. Pretty relevant, actually.”

Hannah chuckled. “No kidding. Do you want to see your cells?”

Adam blinked and Hannah realized how odd her question must have sounded. “I mean– do you want to, like, tour the lab? I dunno, you’re probably sick of labs and cells by now. It’s okay to say no. If you don’t want to go.”

Adam shook his head and laughed. “No, it’d be fine. I’d kind of like to see it. I’ve always wondered what it’s like in there.”

“Well, don’t get your hopes up too high,” cautioned Hannah. “Do you have someplace to go right after this?”

“Not really.”

“Well, then, I’ll wait for you to finish with the big boss and we can go over.”

Adam smiled bashfully. “I think I’d like that.”

 

***

Adam looked through the small rectangular window in the plain metal door. The lab inside was dark and gray. Hannah fished around with her hand to find a light switch on the wall as she opened the door, then flicked it upwards as soon as her fingers found it.

“And here’s where the magic happens!” she announced.

Adam followed her in as she held the door opened and her left arm outstretched. It was a relatively small room, with brick walls and two large windows overlooking the street below. There were two small fume hoods on the end opposite from the door encased in clear plastic windows and filled with glassware flanking either side of a small sink. There was a long black lab bench in the center of the room that was mostly empty and three large refrigerators with clear glass doors to their right, abutting two computer stations. He stepped down and looked up and down a few times.

“What do you think?” she asked.

“Uh, well, I guess I didn’t expect it to look like a smaller version of my high school biology lab,” he replied, trying not to sound disappointed. “I think I expected something a little more high-tech for a place where my liver was re-growing.”

“Well, maybe when we get published in a big journal we’ll be able to afford something that’s all white and chrome with automated pipets, but this is what we have for now,” she said. “And it seems to be all we need for now.”

“No kidding,” he said. “Thanks for bringing me, by the way.”

“I’m happy to,” replied Hannah. “No one else has been remotely interested.”

“And you’re sure it’s okay?”

“This is my workplace and these are your cells. We haven’t figured out how to patent them yet, so… technically, I guess you could just stroll in here any time you wanted.”

He walked towards the refrigerator and realized that it was actually an incubator, as it was giving off some warmth. Through the glass he could see stacks and stacks of petri dishes, plastic boxes, and other containers with neat labels inside. He noticed “AF” scrawled across one stack and pointed to it.

“Hey, is that me?”

“Yup!” exclaimed Hannah. “Do you want to look at your cells under the microscope?”

Adam responded with a puzzled expression. “Uh… really?”

“Sure!”

“Well, um, I guess I never thought of that. I guess it’d be pretty cool, though.”

“Okay, let’s get ‘em out.” Hannah quickly donned a pair of latex gloves and opened the incubator, pulling out a plastic petri dish from the top of the AF stack and holding it up to the light. All that Adam could see were smudges at the base of the dish, which Hannah quickly scraped off onto a slide and placed on a microscope on the lab bench after squirting a few drops of liquid onto them from a bottle next to the microscope. She twirled the knobs on one side and then motioned for Adam to come over.

“Come see,” she invited.

He put his eyes to the eyepiece and looked carefully, He adjusted the microscope himself and watched as tiny red and blue shapes appeared in his view, a tiny kaleidoscope of hepatocytes frozen on the slide before his eyes.

“Wow,” he remarked. “They look so… normal. I mean, I’m not always sure what to say. I’ve seen pictures in books of what liver cells are supposed to look like, and I’ve seen what they look like in someone who has cirrhosis. And I’ve always thought mine were the shrunken, broken-up kind.”

“Well, no longer,” said Hannah proudly.

Adam looked up from the microscope. “So this it, huh?”

“What you see is what you get. We mixed your hepatocytes with the initial Hepatolife formula over there–” she pointed to the fume hoods– “we put them there–” now to the incubators– “and then we implanted them back inside you. And now if you are taking your medicine every day, they are continuing to grow like they should, producing all the factors that make you healthy and happy.”

“It all seems crazy,” replied Adam. “Like magic.”

“Nothing terribly magical about it. The Hepatolife formula stimulates the breakdown of diseased, cirrhotic tissue in the liver by acting as a catalyst for metalloproteinases. It also stimulates liver cell regeneration through the cell signaling pathway.”

“You said when we came in that this is where the magic happens,” he said with a smile. Caught by her own words, Hannah blushed slightly.

“I’m just… amazed,” he continued. “I’m back to moving around normally. Not feeling sick all the time. Not throwing up all the time. Not depending on my dad to get around. I can work out, lift weights, run around the track… lots of things.

“I can’t imagine,” said Hannah, rotating the slide gently on her fingers. Adam watched as the light reflected off of the glass and then disappeared as it turned. She replaced the petri dish in the incubator. Adam noticed this time that there were rows and rows of test tubes filled with blood on the shelves above the petri dishes.

“Are those all of my blood samples, too?” he asked. “I know you take a lot, but…”

“Oh, no, we actually share this lab, believe it not. Space is kind of tight around here until they build those new labs on the other side of MLK…”

“So what do your labmates study? Do you ever see them?”

“We all keep different hours. I think they do something with testing patterns of HIV resistance against new medications. Crazy how you can make a drug and just a few years later the virus has evolved

“What made you want to do this?” he asked.

“What do you mean?” she asked back.

“I mean, how did you get involved with this? Does every medical student at University of Maryland do ground-breaking, life-saving research?”

Hannah laughed a little at his mild sarcasm, and he smiled in return. “Have the reporters started calling you yet?”

“Almost one a week,” he answered grimly. “I vaguely remember signing something a couple of years ago saying that it was okay. But now even my dad gets annoyed when they call. It goes away pretty quickly, though—they start talking about his role in the company and he gets on a roll about how he always believed in Solomon, always kept hoping. You should watch it sometime.”

“I’m sure I will. The PR department at University is pretty keen. I half expected them to hear that our paper had been accepted for publication in the New England Journal before we did.”

“That was when the avalanche started. First it was just the Sun, then it was a few other local papers. Then it was a bunch of other papers. Even someone from the Ghanaian Journal of Medicine & Surgery sent my dad an e-mail the other day. He was really tickled by that one.”

Hannah smiled. “I can see that. I’ve only met your dad a handful of times but he seemed like the sort of man who doesn’t get tickled very often.”

“No, he doesn’t.” Adam shook his head. A few moments of silence passed. Adam took a few moments to study Hannah’s face. He had been used to seeing her dart in and out of his hospital room or Solomon’s clinic, and while her physical features had always registered quickly with him, he’d never quite had the time to appreciate them. Her straight blonde hair fell sharply on her shoulders, framing her narrow, intense face.  By comparison, her gently curved nose and her soft blue eyes were arresting with their simplicity. She didn’t smile much, as far as he had noticed, as if by doing so she’d somehow be wasting the energy that could be spent thinking.

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“I didn’t?” Her eyebrows shot up.

“About why you’re here.”

“Why I’m here?” She looked away, as if the answer might be written on the chalkboard behind them. “Well, I guess it mostly has to do with wanting to get into med school,” explained Hannah matter-of-factly. “I… knew that schools look at lots of things. Grades. Recommendation letters. Volunteer experience. Leadership experience. Research. Everyone kept talking about research, publications, mentors… I just kinda jumped on the bandwagon.”

“Why is research so important? I thought most doctors end up just treating patients all the time.”

“Well… I guess it makes people more familiar with the scientific method. How we get the knowledge that we use every day in the hospital. But Solomon has explained to me that research brings in lots of money and prestige to the University. So if they take in lots of students who are doing research, it helps them train up doctors who want to do research, some of whom might stick around. Or contribute to interesting things happening around here.”

“So how’d you meet Dr. Bode?”

“Um, I asked my friends who were doing research at the time, and none of them knew anyone who was doing anything. So I just looked up the University of Maryland website and I cold-called a bunch of doctors here asking them if they needed an assistant. Told ‘em what my plans were. Most said no, but Solomon said he wanted to meet me.”

“What was that like?” asked Adam.

“Terrifying. He started off telling me that he’d met six undergrads already in the past month and turned them all down. That rattled me right at the beginning. He drew half of the Krebs cycle on the blackboard and made me fill it in. He made me calculate a test, then watched me pipet out what I needed and ran the assay to check it I did it right. I nearly peed my pants.”

“Wow. I think I would, too. I’ve seen the way he treats the residents and sometimes even the other doctors. He’s super nice to me– I guess because of my dad– but I’ve seen him yell at patients to quit drinking or whatever.”

“Yeah, then you know what it’s like. After all of that, he made me tell him what his research was about. Asked me if I’d read any of the papers.”

“Sounds kinda vain,” said Adam.

“I thought so, too. At the start. I thought then that I’d never want to work with him. I thought he was just a giant blowhard. And when he said we were done, I thought he wouldn’t want to work with me, either.”

“So what happened?”

“I walked to the door—that door, right there—and he called out behind me. I remember it pretty vividly, because I was sure he was going to take another dig at me before I left.”

“What did he say?”

“He said, ‘Hannah, you put the fumurate and the malate in the wrong places in the Krebs cycle.’ I felt so frustrated that I almost didn’t turn around, because at that point I was just about ready to cry.”

“That seems like a really petty sort of thing to get worked up about.”

“Yeah, right? He already had my grades and a recommendation letter, just to work in his stupid lab. But when I waited while I tried to decide whether to walk or run, he said, ‘But I don’t care. Because you’re the only one who tried to do the whole thing. Anyone can look up the cycle on the internet if they want, and I expect any student to memorize it for about five minutes so they can pass a test. But you just took it as a challenge and did your best. I’ll never expect anything else from you.’ ”

“Whoa,” said Adam.

“He didn’t care if I’d read his papers because he wanted me to be enthralled with him. He cared because he wanted me to be enthralled with the work. Because he’s so enthralled with it.”

“I can tell.”

Hannah just nodded.

“Are you?” he asked.

“Am I what?”

“Enthralled with the research.”

“Enthralled?” Hannah’s voice sounded quizzical at first. She repeated the word with a bit more pensiveness. “Yeah. I am.”

“I guess that makes two of us,” said Adam, flashing a clean white smile that stuck out powerfully against his dark face. Hannah smiled back.

“I guess it gave us all a new life,” she observed. “Maybe it is more magical than I thought.”

***

Gainers played with his fingers nervously as he sat in the front pew. He had bought himself a new suit for today, and he kept fiddling with the buttons, making sure they were adjusted properly. The suit was dark blue and cut sharply at the shoulders; there were three large buttons rising and falling gently in a line down his belly. He patted himself again as he often did recently, murmuring a silent of prayer of thanks. He looked around the church, watching as folks filed in from the back to fill the pews.

The sanctuary was a delight to his senses—thick red carpet on the floor, thick red cushions lining the dark wooden pews, and colorful banners emblazoned with Bible verses or oversize symbols of the faith lining the walls. Each rectangular banner hung down from a tack on the wall by the same tasseled golden-yellow thread that framed it, and he turned his head around the room to read them all. “Sing To The Lord A New Song,” “Believe In The Lord Jesus Christ And Be Saved,” and “Every Good And Perfect Gift Comes From Above” alternating with a stylized dove on fire, a shimmering cross, and a small choir of black stick figures. At the front of the room sat two stately chairs, also with red-cushioned, with flared armrests. They flanked an impressive wooden pulpit up front and a small drum kit in the back. Next to the kit, the other musicians were setting up their amplifiers and microphones.

Jessi sauntered up to him and sat down on the pew, wrapping her left arm around him. She was dressed in a long, bright teal dress accented by a dark purple belt. Her lips shone in the bright lights reflecting off the stage, and her bright green eyeshadow sparkled just enough to distract Gainers for such a second with its shimmer.

“You look so nice!” she exclaimed.

He looked her in the eye and gave a demure smile. “So do you, sis. Y’know, I had some help from Elmer Johnson in the bathroom there, since apparently my tie was crooked.”

Jessi laughed. “I’m sure Brother Elmer doesn’t mind being helpful to you, Gainers. Folks been real happy you been coming ‘round lately.”

Gainers nodded with a discomforted sigh. He had long been a fixture at Christ the King Praise Tabernacle, whether he was wandering in the back halfway through the sermon at Jessi’s urging or serving as a pointed sermon illustration, demonstrating unmistakably that the wages of sin are death and that a life spent cursing the law of God with one’s actions would only lead to misery and destruction. In his more sober moments, he had given himself to many an altar call before that pulpit, surrendering himself to Jesus for a few miserable days before turning back to his wayward living.

He turned back to the rows of pews filling with other suits and extravagantly colored dresses, most of them matched by equally fascinating hats. Several people recognized him and gave him a polite smile; he smiled and waved back. He rested his hands in his lap and then moved them up and down his suit nervously; he could not remember the last time that he had worn a suit and he kept worrying that there was a missing button or a stain that would only be discovered when he stood up. He turned back to Jessi to find her reassuring smile had not left her face.

“I guess they are happy,” he mumbled quietly.

“Yes they are.”

Gainers watched as the pastor strode to the pulpit, his long black robes trailing his impressive frame. He noticed the voices behind him began to get softer and then disappear just as the pastor began to speak.

“Good morning,” he intoned, bowing his gray-white head just a little.

“Good morning!” responded the congregation in unison.

“I said, good morning!” he exclaimed with a bit more vigor, as though the first response was unsatisfactory.

“GOOD MORNING!” came the reply, this time much louder and more enthusiastic. The preacher’s smile erupted from his mouth and he let loose a short laugh. “Now that’s  more like it. God is good, isn’t He?”

“All the time!”

“And all the time?” he asked, still smiling.

“God is good!”

“Indeed He is!” he exclaimed. “Now this morning I would like to begin with a short little hymn of praise to God Almighty. Brother Robert?”

He turned his head quickly to face the keyboard player, who was already starting to plunk out a tune that the drummer and bassist were following behind with spunk. Gainers began to clap along to the spunky Gospel 2 & 4 beat with glee and singing loudly. Much to the delight of the parishioners around him, Gainers’ singing voice was actually rather pleasant: deep-throated and expressive, yet gentle and smooth. His sense of rhythm and pitch deteriorated quickly whenever he was drunk or hungover, and so they were not usually blessed by his musical expressions as they were this morning.

 

Victory is mine

Victory is mine

Victory today is mine

I told Satan to get thee behind

Victory today is mine

 

What a mighty God we serve

What a mighty God we serve

Angels bow before Him, heaven and earth adore Him

What a mighty God we serve

 

The choruses repeated several times, going up a key twice and somehow making each repetition livelier than the last one. The congregation clapped and cheered as the drums pounded out a fierce crescendo, repeating the last two lines over and over. The keys crackled with energy as they built and then faded behind the ringing cymbals, still flapping up and down with the final hit. The pastor, already starting to sweat, pulled a thick white hankerchief from the pulpit and began to wipe his brow as

“Yes, what a mighty God we serve!” Another jazzy keyboard riff escaped as he paused. “Is there anyone in the house today that can tell us we serve a mighty God?”

A cheer rose up in response, accompanied by more cymbals crashing.

“Maybe there’s just one or two that can talk about how God has saved them!”

Jessi nudged Gainers gently.

“But I thought he was gonna do this after the sermon!” he complained in a voice that was clearly trying to be discreet but clearly failing.

“Well, the Spirit done moved him otherwise. Stand up!” Jessi whispered back harshly.

Gainers shook his head. “Dunno if I’m ready.”

“You are,” said Jessi confidently, pulling at his arm.

He shook again but slowly rose his hand just above his head.

“Why yes. Brother Gainers,” observed the pastor in his melodious, deep voice. “I see that you look a little different today than usual.”

“Yes sir, pastor,” replied Gainers with a nod.

“Did you have a testimony to share today?” he asked with a smile.

Gainers nodded again.

“Well, then, by all means! Stand up!” He spoke with such authority and vigor, as if Gainers had been tied down in the pew and had just been cut free. Gainers hesitantly rose, looking one way and then the next back at the crowd again. So many people had come in when he wasn’t paying attention; 15 rows back on both sides were almost completely full of people in their bright hats, vibrant dresses, and sharp suits. Gainers felt a wave of panic consume him and, for the first time in weeks, he thirsted for a drink. He instinctively reached for his back pocket but found no bottle there; he twiddled a large pint of lint in his fingers for a few awkward seconds before he cleared his throat and began to speak.

“Well, uh, you all know where I been lately and how it been a little different than where I been before.” There were several nods and murmurs of affirmation in the audience, and Gainers swallowed quietly.

“Well, that’s all changed. Y’know the good Lord done brought me down to the University of Maryland and I met Dr. Solomon Bode there. Very wise man, Dr. Bode. He had this experimental treatment for me, for people like me. I don’t know if you all knew, but my liver was in a bad way. A real bad way.”

He began to pace, still running the lint back and forth in his pocket with nervous energy, trying to channel whatever energy he could find in the sanctuary and imitate every dramatic, emotional testimony he had ever seen.

“And Dr. Bode, he told me that if I had just one little cell in my liver that was workin’, he could grow it into a whole new liver for me. I didn’t believe him, but I had no choice! My belly was all swole up like a pregnant lady!”

People laughed as Gainers gestured with his hands in front of him, and as they did he smiled, letting their enjoyment of his story take him further.

“So I said, ‘If you can find a working liver cell, then you take it!’ And he did! He found it and he grew it up in his lab, and he put it back inside me. And now– now, after all those years of drinkin’ and carryin’ on, the Lord has given me a second chance!”

A few people clapped and he heard a few more murmuring “Amen.” He pulled his hand out of his pocket, lifting it above his hand in a hesitant gesture of devotion.

“All my life, I’ve just been waiting for another chance. I always felt like I was goin’ down the wrong road, that wide road that leads to destruction. It was a slippery slope, and I’ve always been just slidin’ down. Every time I tried to climb back up, I just went down further.”

Gainers began to flail his arms, clawing wildly at the muddy, slippery hill in his mind.

“But God didn’t forget me! God never forgets!”

“No, he doesn’t!” came one prophetic voice.

“Yes, God remembered me and he heard my pleading and prayer. I asked him to save me, and save me he did! He gave me a new liver, and I jus’ can’t praise him enough! It’s as if the Lawd himself done seen me slippin’ and slidin’ toward the mouth of hell and done plucked me up with His own two fingers!”

The vigor of the amens increased as Gainers’ gesticulations reached a crescendo.

“I just wanna say that if Gainers Goodson can get saved and stand up before you today in a suit and tie, singin’ the Lord’s praises on Sunday and workin’ downtown on every other day, you know he can save anybody! Praise God!”

“Praise God!” responded the congregation, not entirely in unison but with enough passion to compensate. Gainers heard the band pick up the beat behind him, and broke out into song, waving his arms with the beat and loudly once again declaring that victory was his. The congregation sang along and cheered in between verses, letting themselves get lost with him in the joy of the moment. He looked for a second at Jessi, her smile wide as she quietly sang. He continued to sing and dance around in a circle, his arms waving wildly and his voice as loud as he could make it.

 

***

 

“Adam? Are you okay?”

Adam felt a firm hand on his shoulder, shaking back and forth with more force than necessary. He lifted his head and turned quickly to see his father standing behind him, a concerned look on his face and his intense eyes staring down.

“Adam, what happened?”

“Uh…” Adam looked down on his textbook and saw that several pages had become smushed together, quite obviously when his face met them. He blinked and looked back at his father, whose other hand was fumbling around in his pocket in a violent motion similar to the one he had just applied to Adam’s shoulder.

“Oh my God. I’m calling 911.” His father’s familiar panic and deep accent were comforting as Adam awoke.

“Agya, no. I’m fine. I just fell asleep studying.”

“You were unconscious. Are you sure you’re okay? Do you feel sick?”

“I wasn’t unconscious, just sleeping. I feel fine. I’m just tired.” As if to prove it, he followed his statement with a yawn. “This cell biology stuff is not too thrilling.”

“Maybe we should call Dr. Chambliss just to be sure.” He was already going for the speed dial. Adam reached his hand up gently and covered the phone.

“I’m fine,” exclaimed Adam. “Please, just sit down. I made some dinner for you. It’s in the fridge.”

Kofi’s look of concern shifted slightly from fear to suspicion. “Okay, but if you feel sick I will call her.”

Adam rolled his eyes. “Okay.”

Kofi finally released his grip on Adam’s shoulder and walked over to the refrigerator. He pulled out a dark red stew in tupperware and poured it into a pot on the stove, stirring it as he started the burner. “How was your day?”

“Fine,” replied Adam. “I just went to class, went to the gym, back to class. I came home, made dinner, started studying, and then just fell asleep while I was reading.”

“I see.”

“How about your day?’

“Oh, it was excellent. We are working on a deal for reprints of Dr. Bode’s article in the New England Journal. Designing materials to promote Hepatolife. After his talk next week, I think many people will want to use it.”

“Great! What’s happening next week?”

“The American Society of Hepatology meeting in Chicago. Dr. Bode is giving a big presentation on Hepatolife to some investors, and I know lots of doctors will have questions. We are starting to get emails, thinking of bigger trials.”

“Why would you need another trial. It works, right?”

Kofi chuckled. “I wish it were so simple! What happened so far was just an initial study. You have to do more studies in larger groups before anyone will believe it works.”

“But it worked for me.”

“Of course it did. But you’re only one person. If it kills everyone else who uses it and you just got lucky, then it’s not a good medicine, is it?”

Adam sighed. “I guess not. That would be disappointing.”

“Did you take your medicine today?” asked Kofi.

“Of course!”

“400 milligrams in the morning and 800 milligrams in the evening?”

“With a tall glass of water and food, just like Dr. Bode says.”

“Oh good! I get so worried if you skip a dose. He says that you may be on it for life to sustain the effect.”

“I’ve got an alarm on my phone to remind me, father. Don’t worry so much about it. Did you take your medicine?”

“Oh! Ah, I cannot remember. Usually I take it in the morning. I think I took it today.”

“Daaaaad…”

“It’s just some high blood pressure pill and some cholesterol.” He pronounced every syllable cautiously. “It’s not like it’s keeping my liver alive!” He chuckled to himself and seemed a little disappointed when Adam did not chuckle along.

“And the aspirin, too. And didn’t your doctor say that you might need medicine for diabetes, too?”

“Well, you know the diabetes runs in our family. For now I just watch what I eat.”

“Okay,” said Adam with a hint of exasperation. “I saw how much salt you put in that soup.”

“So genetics. Not too thrilling.”

Adam chuckled. “Not so much.”

“But it is so important!”

“Yeah, I know,” mumbled Adam. “I just… never mind.”

Kofi’s head turned from the stove.

“What is it, son?”

“It’s just– I don’t know if it’s for me. I’m trying as hard as I can and I’m still just getting a B-minus average.”

“What?” exclaimed Kofi. “Even with the tutor?”

Adam nodded.

“How much do you study?”

“Like I said, I went to class, studied, went to the gym, studied, went to my second class, came home, fell asleep studying.”

“Maybe four classes is too much. I should have had you just take three. Ease into things.”

“No, it’s not too much, it’s just… not my thing.”

“Oh.” Adam watched his father’s face fall slightly, then tense again. “Well, you should be trying harder. Maybe you need a different tutor.”

“Agya, I am trying.”

His father sighed. “If you do not do well in biology, you will not get into medical school.”

“Yeah, I kinda realized that.”

Again Adam watched disappointment cross his father’s face after a brief moment of panic. As he watched, he realized that he had probably been putting off this conversation too long; it had appeared in his consciousness every few days and he had kept pushing it back down. He felt even guiltier for feeling like he had dragged his father along.

“Don’t you want to be a doctor?”

“Of course I want to be a doctor. I’m just not sure how badly I want it.”

Kofi turned back to stove, shaking his head gently. “I will talk to your tutor.”

Adam sat in his chair for another few seconds in silence, then gathered his textbook and notes into his arms and walked out of the kitchen. He moped up the stairs to his room and shut the door, unceremoniously dropping the textbook on his desk and sitting down on his bed with a sigh. His eyes wandered aimlessly around his room; aside from a few small posters of hip-hop artists the walls were bare and the only light came from the computer at his desk next to his twin bed.

Without a second thought, he texted Hannah.

hey, hows it going?

As the meter on his phone advanced, he immediately wondered why he had sent her a text. They hadn’t talked at all since she showed him the lab last week, and he was not even sure she would recognize his number since she had only given him her number in case he got lost trying to find her there. He started to type an explanation of who it was that was texting her and then he thought that perhaps that would be too weird; he wanted to explain himself but he couldn’t. Just as he erased his last draft, the phone beeped to indicate a reply had arrived.

Okay, just getting ready for the conference next ow ddare you?

He was taken aback by having his fears about her not recognizing his number quickly demolished, but responded just as quickly as he had initiated.

just strugglin thru genetics. didnt realize ur going to chicago too! my dad was just talkin about it.

I’m pretty excited about it! We’ve presented here before, but never with a big group.

He started to write “Cool,” but then he realized that just one word would probably signal the end of the conversation.

Cool. u doing anything Friday for lunch?

Again, he only thought about why he had written what he had written after it was sent. He waited for two or three rather long minutes before the reply came.

No. Why? Did you have plans?

His hands were trembling a little as he pecked out his message, now fretting from the ambiguity of her direct question that he had pushed it. He hoped that his father didn’t come in and see; he knew that he would get dragged down to the ER for some blood tests right away on account of his tremor.

i could use some help with my cell bio and i know u got it down. do u want to meet at camden pub at noon?

Sure! Looking forward to it!  : )

And with that, he laid the phone down and put it on his bedside table. He laid back on his bed, staring up at the clean white ceiling like he had done for days and days before when he felt so fatigued that he couldn’t get out of bed. He reached over and re-opened the cell phone to look at the last message a few more times, fixating on that final smiley face and wondering if she was just the sort of person who wrote that or if it meant something else.

His thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door.

“Come in,” he said.

His father slowly entered, putting his head in first.

“I’m sorry, were you sleeping?”

“No, I was awake.” Adam felt his hands clench nervously beneath the covers.

Kofi sat down at a chair next to Adam’s desk.

“I wanted to say that I am sorry. Your tutor told me that you are working so hard. I have been pushing you very hard.”

Adam nodded, but he felt almost obligated to defend his father’s point of view.. “Well, we talked about it, and I wanted to take two classes more than you wanted me to. I wanted to prove that the hepatitis wasn’t gonna keep me down anymore.”

“Do you feel sick? Do I need to take you to the ER?”

“No, Agya, I’m not sick! If I feel sick, I promise I’ll tell you. You don’t need to worry about that. I’ve got a new liver now. We’re good.”

Kofi looked away, idly twisting his fingers.

“Okay,” he said firmly.

Adam sat up in bed and gently touched his father’s hand. “I’ve been thinking.”

Kofi turned his head back. “Thinking about?”

Adam hesitated. “Well, uh, I really want to help people still. Maybe I could do nursing. Or counseling. I really like my psychology class.”

His father very subtly bit his lip and narrowed his eyes. “Nursing.”

A pause.

“Psychology,” he said in a low rumble.

“I know it’s not medicine. But they’re still good jobs.”

Kofi sighed again.

“I have worked all of my life to give you everything that you need. To keep you alive. To give you a good career.”

Adam tried to brace himself for the wave of guilt and disappointment. Then his father smiled.

“And if you want your good career to be… psychology, then I will keep working for that.”

“Really?” asked Adam, still suspicious and holding back.

“Yes, really.” His father smiled wider. “You would be a good counselor. You have been through so much, and you care so much for people.”

“Thanks,” said Adam. “I really appreciate it.”

Kofi nodded. “Now get some sleep.”

“Yes, agya.”

Adam watched his father rise and leave the room. He laid back on his pillow and closed his eyes, still trying to process all that had happened in the last few minutes. Adam could not remember a time when his father had not talked about medical school, even when he was in an intensive care unit 2 years ago.

He reached over and looked at his cell phone one more time before falling asleep.

 

***

 

Hannah kept her hands tightly pushed into her pockets as she leaned her back against the pole in the Metro car, shifting her feet to maintain her balance. The car was crowded and warm; she kept running her fingers over her wallet, keys, and cell phone in her jeans pocket to make sure that no one had pulled them out without her knowledge. She kept looking around and carefully reassessing her situation; since the Metro ran from the suburb of Owings Mills to the esteemed Johns Hopkins Hospital through the city she was not the only tall blonde in the car but she was certainly outnumbered by the black men and women dressed in scrubs, jeans, or the occasional suit. She tried to reassure herself that as long as she kept aware of her surroundings she would be okay and that it was probably a little prejudiced to be gripping her wallet as tightly as she was. And yet her more cerebral understanding of her situation did not particularly ease her mind.

“Damn, girl, you fine.”

Hannah thought for a second that the comment might have been directed at her, but hoped that it was meant for the young lady standing next to her whose nails flashed in the fluorescent light as she operated her smartphone, a thin white cord reaching up and disappearing into her purple-streaked crescent-shaped hairdo. Hannah kept her eyes on the woman, who did not respond.

“I said, you fine.” More emphatically this time, and certainly closer to her ear. Hannah felt a tap on her shoulder and turned her head.

Just a few inches from her face was a skinny young man wearing a shit-eating grin and an oversize military jacket emblazoned with various patches. Beneath it he had a sweat-stained white undershirt and jeans that had no pretensions of attempting to cover his underwear. Long, uneven dreads fell from his head onto his shoulders and his breath reeked of stale smoke, which Hannah could unfortunately smell quite well.

“Excuse me?” she said defensively.

“Girl, let me get yo’ number,” he requested, again tapping her shoulder as he moved around from behind her, trapping her between the pole and himself as his hand found a firmer grip.

“Yeah, right,” replied Hannah with a shake of  her head. She tried to brush his hand away from her shoulder, only to have him reach back and try to stroke the back of her hand. She tried to move to her right but only jostled the woman with the smartphone, who looked over briefly and then back to her phone.

“C’mon, how come you gotta be like that?” he insisted. Now she waved her left arm more violently to get his out of the way, pulling her other hand out of her pocket and readying a fist. He tried to step forward a little more but then was quickly yanked backwards.

“Excuse me?” came a sharper, lower voice from behind him. Hannah breathed a sigh of relief as she saw that a taller, muscular man wearing only a U-neck white shirt, jeans, and a leather jacket holding onto the lapel of the military jacket with apparently enough force to keep her would-be suitor fixed in place despite the fact that both his arms and legs were moving.

“Man, I was jus’ talkin!” he exclaimed in his defense.

“That shit don’t play,” growled the taller man.

Fuck, man, get yo’ hands off of me–”

“Don’t you dare put your hands on her.”

“Fine.” The grip was released and he gave one last glare before slinking away to another part of the car, leaving Hannah standing alone facing her very large intercessor.

“Thank you,” she said quietly.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Happens all the time.”

“You ride the metro all the time?” he asked.

“Not so much.”

“Just be careful. Where you going?”

“North Avenue.”

“Oh.”

Hannah could tell from his response that he was clearly disappointed in her answer, but she couldn’t completely understand why. She watched his face for a few seconds as he looked her up and down, clearly assessing the situation, almost as if he regretted intervening or had misjudged the situation himself.

“You just don’t seem like the type to be goin’ to North Avenue,” he finally said.

Oh,” said Hannah, suddenly realizing his insinuation. The train was slowing down and as it stopped she quickly launched into an explanation. “Well, I’m, usually not. I’m meeting someone for a community development project. Not going to buy anything.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Community development project?”

Hannah nodded. “Yeah, right now it’s just focused on getting some ground support for the new healthcare law they’re trying to pass, but we’re looking to move into other health-related issues in the community…”

He chuckled and shook his head. “Okay, okay. I get it. This is North Avenue, ma’am.”

“Oh!” exclaimed Hannah. “Then I’d better get off.”

She turned towards the door that was sliding open, then stopped and looked back.

“Thank you again! I really appreciate it.”

“You’re very welcome,” he replied with a brief, respectful nod.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Dario,” he said with a smile.

“Hannah.” She extended a hand to shake, which he took and gave a firm squeeze.

“Pleasure to meet you,” he said.

“You too! Perhaps one day I can repay you.”

He laughed again. “Who knows? I’d love to meet you again. Hurry, the doors are going to close!”

With that, she turned back and dashed through the sliding doors just as they began to move back together. She watched the train begin moving again, disappearing into the black tunnel ahead as it accelerated into the darkness. She looked around the drab platform, which appeared to demonstrate every shade of gray possible from the walls to the floor to the ceiling to escalator, which she rode up with the crowd of people who had just gotten off the train with her. After passing through a drab turnstile, she turned and took the stairs out of the station to the surface.

The relative warmth of the station disappeared as she walked into the cold, dry air. She found herself on a street corner surrounded by people who were either waiting for a bus or talking to those who were waiting; others seemed to be standing on the corner with no apparent purpose or reason but to be there. Cars and buses were stopping at every corner, causing other vehicles to quickly swerve around them while at the same time trying to avoid the pedestrians who crossed the street without any apparent regard to the traffic signals. The energy of the corner was a little overwhelming but also exciting to her. Directly across the street was her destination, the Enoch Pratt Free Library, and she waited at the crosswalk to pass when she heard a voice.

“Hannah?!”

She turned, surprised to hear her name but just as quickly reassuring herself that whoever said it was probably looking for someone else. Yet, below the bright red-and-white sign backlit that plainly stated “NEW YORK FRIED CHICKEN,” standing in the doorway, was Jessi. She was dressed in a light blue blouse and khaki pants with a puffy brown coat zipped most of the way up. Her hair was once again meticulously cropped short beneath her hood, her tiny gray curls evenly covering her scalp.

“Jessi!” exclaimed Hannah. She dodged the oncoming slew of pedestrians and quickly but carefully moved towards the restaurant entrance.

“Girl, what you doing takin’ the Metro?”

“It was just as fast coming from my place downtown. I didn’t want to have to worry about parking or anything.”

Jessi raised her eyebrows as she turned back inside. “Ok-ay then. C’mon.”

Hannah followed her inside, enjoying the warm blast of heat blowing from the vents as Jessi moved towards the counter. Hannah looked around the restaurant, studying it as she might regard an interesting archaeological site; she had driven past numerous fried chicken places in the city before but had never actually been inside one before. The plain-spoken menu was clearly posted with plastic backlit pictures of various menu items, advertising various specials and combos. There was thick plexiglass below the menu where money and food were exchanged through a carousel and only two chairs in the whole waiting area, which were both occupied by two older men. Hannah studied the menu, noting that it covered a wider variety of foods than she had expected– not just fried chicken, but also pizzas, subs, sandwiches, fried fish, wings, gyros, and an endless variety of sides including a menu item listed only as “GREENS/HAM HOCK.” The variety impressed her for a second before she realized that all of it was probably not very healthy.

Jessi returned from the carousel where she had placed her order, giving Hannah a brief hug.

“How you doin, hon?” she asked sweetly.

“Oh, I’m fine,” replied Hannah. “How about you?”

“Oh, you know, jus’ getting by. My shoulder be hurtin’ me these last couple days. But I’m thankful to be getting by.”

Hannah nodded, not sure exactly what else to say in response.

“It’ll be about 10 minutes before the food is ready. So let’s talk. Now what?” Jessi’s eyes again narrowed with suspicion.

“Well,” stuttered Hannah, “I think we want to take advantage of any upcoming fairs or neighborhood rallies or whatever is happening in the neighborhood. We could have a booth getting people to write letters to the governor, we can hand out invitations to the big rally in January, we could even do something like blood pressure screening for people.”

“Okay,” murmured Jessi as she pulled out a cigarette. “I still don’t see how getting a bunch of black folks from the projects all up in arms about getting free health care is gonna make a difference at all.”

“It’s a different world than it was fifteen years ago,” defended Hannah quickly. “Single payer health care is a much more popular now, especially in a more liberal state like Maryland. The middle class is getting squeezed on healthcare costs and struggling with underemployment or poor coverage. And when we ship buses full of people downtown to the rally… people will pay attention.”

“People pay attention, all right. Then they send in the poh-leese to pay you some attention at a rally like that. I hope you all are ready for that. Nobody likes a bunch o’ angry black people all together at once.”

Hannah nodded. “No, you’re right. The power structures in Baltimore will never give the people a fair shake, and we’ve got to do what we can to negotiate that. My friend Josh is doing an internship with the city health department for the year and he’s working hard to arrange everything with the city so there aren’t any big issues.”

“Well then, we’ll just see. There’s a community festival comin’ up at the end of the month for Thanksgivin’. Gonna be up at Carver High. Some kids rappin’ up on a stage, I think. Forget who’s putting it on. But we can get us a booth there.”

“Great!” exclaimed Hannah, hurriedly taking notes on her phone. “Who do we talk to?”

“I’ll get it set up,” said Jessi. “One of them ladies from the meeting last month is runnin’ it, I think.”

“So what else do you think would work? How about going door-to-door to talk to people and hand out information?”

Jessi snorted. “Girl, you not been on the West Side very much, have you? Once a month some– I’ll say this– well-meanin’, very well-meanin’ tall blonde such as yourself rolls through with a clipboard and a flyer and a ‘How-Do-You-Do-Miss-Goodson-I’m-From-Somewhere-You-Ain’t-Ever-Been’ tellin’ us all about some program or some survey. Door-to-door just gonna get you a bunch o’ raised eyebrows and slammed doors.”

Hannah giggled at Jessi’s caricature, especially when she straightened up and pretended to be a white knight interlocutor, strutting up and knocking on an imaginary door.

“I hope I didn’t look like that!” she exclaimed.

Jessi looked worried for half a second that she might have possibly offended Hannah, but clearly it didn’t faze her for long.

“Aw, no, girl, you was fine. Scared. But you was fine.”

Hannah smiled. “If you say so.” She turned back to the plexiglass. “Y’know, I am kind of hungry…  is there anything here that isn’t grilled, battered, deep-fried, generously salted, and served to us in environmentally un-friendly white styrofoam containers?”

Jessi laughed. “We got salad. With fat free dressing if you be worried about gettin’ fat.”

“Maybe I will get a salad,” said Hannah, trying not to react to the derisive tone that Jessi had used with the word “fat.” “Do you think they have yogurt or something?”

Jessi again raised her eyebrows. “Yogurt?”

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding!”

Chapter 5 was released on January 1, 2015.

Go to the discussion page.

Creative Commons License
Trousseau Syndrome by Matthew Loftus is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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