“Gainers! You get yo’ ass upstairs now!”
Gainers heard his sister’s voice calling from above, but it sounded indistinct and muddled. He felt unsure if she was also whispering in his ear at the same time, as he thought he had heard her low voice telling him to keep lying there, safe on his mattress in the basement. He opened his eyes again, reaching around for the light switch and finally finding it after a few seconds of awkward fumbling. The dim glow of the bulb was still too harsh, sending sparks flying all over his field of vision. He closed his eyes again and pulled the blanket over his head.
The whispers rose in volume, clashing with the echo of Jessi’s command. He heard her footsteps on the stairs and flung the blanket off.
“I’m comin’! I’m comin’!” he protested loudly. He looked up. She was clutching the rickety railing as she descended the stairs, taking one careful but animated step at a time to ease herself down. Her other hand clutched a pill bottle that shook and rattled as she moved. He could hear her huff and puff over the whispers, her chest heaving as she worked to get down to the basement.
“Gainers, you tell me what the hell is goin’ on.” She redirected her glare upwards. “Lord, forgive me for cursing. But this– this thorn you’ve given me is tryin’ my patience!”
“I dunno what you talkin’ about,” said Gainers. He had his suspicions, but he knew that his sister’s wrath could be stirred up for any number of legitimate reasons.
“I just got a call from your work. You ain’t been there all week and you is fired.”
“Oh,” said Gainers, quickly overcome with shame. He winced as he looked down at the mattress. “I… did go in the other day. I was late, though.”
“Gainers, you been late all the time. Ain’t nothin’ new. We talked about this. And now I look at your pills…” She shook the orange bottle decisively, as if it were evidence in a courtroom. “…and honey, it got refilled a month ago. There’s 23 pills left in here. You ain’t been takin’ them again. After I sold the television so you could pay your bills to the psy-chiatrist and go talk to her and get your refills.”
“I… I’m sorry,” said Gainers, his head still hung low. The whispers had crescendoed into an incomprehensible buzzing, with curse words barely distinguishable in the noise.
“What are you gonna do, Gainers?”
He shook his head without making a noise.
“Gainers, I’m talking to you. Look at me,” demanded Jessi. “We paid good money for these pills, and you are not going to just let them sit in the cabinet. I ain’t got enough time to babysit you and make sure you take your medicine every day. I got enough of a hard time workin’ and watchin’ the kids and takin’ my own medicine. Now come upstairs and take ‘em. And now that you’re not making any income, maybe we can get that SSI back.”
“That’d be nice,” grumbled Gainers. “I liked that check. Ain’t they gonna get insurance for e’erbody in Maryland soon? All that workin’ and rallyin’ you did?”
“Not ‘til January,” said Jessi, turning back up the stairs and taking a deep breath as she went up each step. Gainers trudged behind her, scratching his bare, protuberant belly as he followed. She poured him a glass of water and emptied two pills from the bottle onto the counter, which he took in hand and swallowed.
“And that liver doctor keep callin’ every week, too. You haven’t been down there lately, have you?”
Gainers shook his head.
“Well, you know what’s gonna happen if you don’t get that medicine anymore, so I ain’t gonna lecture you no more about it.” Gainers looked over at his sister briefly to catch her stern gaze again, then turned his head back down to face the worn cream-colored countertop. He felt her hand around his shoulder, drawing him in.
“Oh, Gainers,” she said as she hugged him. “Why you got to be so hard? Things wasgood before.”
Gainers drew her in to embrace, then stepped back. “Well, y’know, you was in that, uh, cardiac rehab for six weeks! And you had to take them extra classes for work and we wasn’t gettin’ as much money, so I took some more hours on. And then you was back in the hospital again last week. And I just… I ain’t so good at keepin’ everything together the same way when you ain’t around.”
“Gainers, I have a heart condition. I am still bustin’ my aa– my behind– to keep food on the table and the lights on. We lucky I even still got a job, ‘cause you know SSI turned me down and you know I ain’t running up and down the hallways like I used to be. They was kind and let me be a unit secretary even though I don’t know what I’m doing half the time.”
Jessi clutched her chest, clearly exhausted by her soliloquy. “Lord, I got them chest pains again.” Gainers felt a moment of panic as he watched his sister sway slightly, then reach over to the cabinet. She frantically unscrewed another pill bottle and popped a tablet under her tongue. After a few seconds of waiting, she clutched her head.
“Damn, this medicine make your head hurt worse than your chest. Lordy.”
“You okay, sis?” asked Gainers.
“I’m fine, Gainers. Just that an-gina.”
Gainers felt confused and uncomfortable. “What… something wrong with your, uh, lady parts?”
Jessi guffawed. “Aw, Gainers, that’s my va-gina! Angina is chest pain. Heart not gettin’ enough oxygen. And you know I’m in a bad way then ‘cause it’s right next to my lungs!”
“You got a cigarette?” asked Gainers.
Jessi shook her head. “I’m quitting. I smoked my last one this morning before I came down. That cigarette probably saved yo’ life because I calmed down and didn’t just beat you.”
“Can I get six dollars for a pack?”
Jessi snorted. “Are you joking? You think I got six dollars I’m gonna give to you for smokes?”
“Can I get 50 cents for a loose one?”
As he watched his sister shake her head, he knew that he was on his own to either scrounge around the living room for loose change that someone might have dropped or head out of the house to hit up a friend. He could already hear the buzzing start to die down, the whispers drawing out and breaking up like a bad cell phone. They hugged again.
“Gainers, I know the Lord is gonna get us through… just gotta keep saying our prayers. Oh, Jesus!”
Gainers muttered a prayer along with his sister and slowly wandered back downstairs. He dressed himself in a clean t-shirt and a not-as-clean pair of jeans, watching a morning talk show on his tiny television as he did. For a few seconds he thought that he heard a message specifically for him from the pert blonde anchor, but then he quickly remembered that his doctor had told him that he should always ignore whatever messages the television had for him anyway.
Once he was clothed, he went back upstairs where the heat of the day was already starting to accumulate in the kitchen. Jessi had been kind enough to leave him some scrambled eggs in the pan before she left for work, and as usual he returned her favor by perfunctorily wiping the pan and their plates with a wet soapy washcloth and rinsing the dishes, still leaving bits of breakfast residue all over their surfaces.
He went outside, sweat already beginning to accumulate under his arms and across his forehead. He decided that the checkers game down on the corner of Presstman and Fulton was probably the best place to borrow a cigarette. He ambled down the block, waving hello to the children who were riding their bikes and scooters up and down the otherwise empty street. A few older children were already bored at this early hour and were taking turns throwing rocks at the windows of the last vacant house on the block that hadn’t been boarded up. Gainers shook his head at their youthful exuberance as they cheered each crash of broken glass.
He crossed Fulton’s four lanes of traffic and sat himself down in a metal folding chair next to the gentlemen who had assembled around two boards of checkers. His friend Jimmy, a tall wiry fellow with two days’ of gray scruff on his face on his worn amaretto face, was clearly winning with two kings already to his opponent’s zero.
“Gainers, ain’t you s’posed to be at work today? Ain’t no holiday, is it?” asked Jimmy in his deep, warbly voice.
Gainers shook his head. “Fourth of Ju-ly already come and gone. Naw, that job ain’t my thing.”
“It’s tough times,” observed Jimmy, leading to a round of “mm-hmms” from around the table.
“Anyone got a smoke?” asked Gainers after waiting for a few seconds.
“Sure,” said Jimmy, reaching into his shirt pocket and pulling out a pack of Newports. He offered one to Gainers as well as one to his challenger, who looked like he could use one as Jimmy had just acquired his third king. Gainers lit up and took a long drag on his cigarette, the nicotine rapidly absorbing into his bloodstream through his lungs and calming him down. He mulled over Jessi’s disappointment with him this morning and admitted to himself that he was just as disappointed with himself as she was.
His cigarette was exhausted before his anxiety was. He let the burning nub fall to the ground where it quickly extinguished itself in the humid air. As his eyes followed it down, he noticed a bottle wrapped in brown paper at Jimmy’s feet.
“What you got there?” he asked, nudging his friend.
Jimmy laughed. “Oh Gainers, you having a hard time. Help yourself.”
Gainers shuddered for a second, remembering all of his promises to Jessi and Dr. Bode. He started to hear whispering again, the word “loser” hissing at the periphery of his head. He felt like he would be able to the see the source of the sound if he could just crane his head enough, but it eluded him as he shook back and forth.
“Naw, man, I ain’t into that no more. Been clean for a while. Plus my doctor don’t like it.”
“Okay,” said Jimmy nonchalantly. “Doctor probly don’t like lots of things.”
“He sure don’t seem to like fun too much,” observed Gainers. The other men began to guffaw.
“You know they all stern and serious like when you in the office and it’s all ‘don’t you be smokin’, havin’ sex, doin’ drugs, eatin’ this…” said one. “But you see ‘em anywhere else and they just like you and me. I’ll bet your doc hits the bottle himself from time to time.”
Gainers shook his head. “Ain’t so. He tell me himself that he ain’t never let a sip in his mouth.”
The crowd protested, looking at Gainers with suspicion.
“No way!” exclaimed Jimmy.
“Yup,” said Gainers, continuing to describe Dr. Bode as if he was a unique zoological specimen that Gainers had observed in a far-off land. “He’s a real serious type. Always talkin’ ‘bout how black people gotta start respectin’ themselves and stop complainin’ and all that shit. He says you can test his urine any time and it’ll be clean. Says beer is nothin’ but trouble.”
The men shook their heads in derision as Jimmy cornered his opponent’s final piece. Gainer’s eyes wandered back down towards the brown paper sack at his friend’s feet.
“I don’t know if he thinks he needs to be an example to everyone or he just see so many men like me that done come to their end by the bottle… but it makes you think, y’know? And it’s like you’re his best friend when you stop drinking.”
“Is he real religious?” asked Jimmy.
“No,” answered Gainers. “That’s the part I can’t figure out. Says he don’t believe in God, neither. Says it’s fine for people like me who feel like they need to believe someone else is helpin’ them, but he ain’t seen nothing yet to make him believe. For me– I know I need the help.”
“Ain’t that right,” muttered one of their companions.
Gainers nodded, nudging the bottle with his foot so that it sat further behind the leg of Jimmy’s chair. He didn’t want it in his line of vision.
“Lord, help me,” he whispered under his breath.
“Loserloserloserloser,” whispered back the hushed voice.
Adam heard the door open and close downstairs. He closed the lid to his laptop, rubbing his eyes as it clicked shut. He heard the sound of footsteps on the wooden staircase getting louder, then disappearing suddenly as the feet hit the carpet on the second floor. He felt Hannah’s warm hands rubbing his shoulders and looked upwards, her long hair brushing his face as he did. His smooth head rubbed against her blouse and slacks. She smelled good– her shampoo or some perfume, he wasn’t sure.
“You done yet?” she asked.
“Not all of the applications,” he said. “Just Loyola and Towson. I still have to do University of Maryland. It’s just a lot of writing.”
“I guess they want to make sure you’re well-prepared to spend your day documenting your thoughts if you want to be a social worker.”
“Guess so,” replied Adam with a shrug. “If I show my dad how much I have to do to apply, he might be more impressed.” He turned his chair around to face Hannah, reaching his arms around her to draw her close and bury his face in her shirt.
“I’m sure he’s very impressed with you, Adam. And more importantly, I’m impressed with you. You’ve found something that you really want and you’re working towards it. You’re passionate about helping people. That means a lot to me.”
“Thanks,” murmured Adam. “How was your day?”
“Not too bad,” said Hannah. “As you can see, it’s 7pm on a Friday and I’m already home, so that’s a good sign!”
“It is,” remarked Adam. “Sorry I didn’t heat up dinner yet. You must be really hungry.”
“There was some free food at one of the resident meetings, actually,” said Hannah. “So we snuck in after it was done and got what was left over.”
“Oh. Okay. What happened to that chick with HIV?”
“Oh my goodness. That was a complete clusterfuck. So not only is it revealed that she has AIDS and is taking her medicine just frequently enough to cause resistance and create some superbug HIV, she also hasn’t told her current sex partner that she’s got it! So the intern– remember Gwen, I told you about her?”
“The one you felt was kinda not very nice?”
Hannah nodded. “Yeah, Miss Too Cool For Intern Year. Anyway, either she doesn’t know or doesn’t care that this patient doesn’t want her mom to know about her status– maybe because she lives with her mom, Gwen thinks it’s okay– anyway, Gwen mentioned that she had HIV while her mom was in the room.”
“No way,” said Adam, shaking his head. “That’s terrible.”
“Patient. Freaks. Out. She’s cussing and yelling and threatening to sue. The whole time the attending– I told you about him, he’s kinda stone-faced normally– just shuts down. The patient demands that we get out, and then finally! Her mom just shrugs and says, ‘Honey, you think I didn’t know?’ “
“Oh, wow,” exclaimed Adam. “No way.”
“Oh, yeah. Mom is all like, ‘Calm down, I already knew and I’m just glad we can finally talk about it.’ And then the patient stops yelling at us and starts yelling at her mom. Like I said– a complete clusterfuck.”
“Couldn’t she actually sue for divulging that information?” asked Adam. “In my one class, they talked about confidentiality…”
“Well, I guess. But most people who threaten to sue apparently don’t. That’s what Saul said, anyway. I mean, Gwen was in the wrong, and when she got back from talking to the attending it was clear that she’d been crying. God, I feel bad, but I felt just a little happy that she’d gotten put in her place.”
Adam shrugged. “Um. Yeah, but how about her mom knowing she had HIV and they’d never talked about it. Pretty big deal, right?”
“No shit. The patient’s reaction was just so… unsettling. Combined with how she wasn’t taking her medication and kept lying to me, it was just a bad day.”
“So now what?”
“Well, her esophagus is actually fine, which is the crazy thing. I couldn’t believe that she didn’t have a fungal infection or anything with the way that she had so much pain.”
“Really?” asked Adam. “I thought you told me that everyone was so sure that the fact she had HIV meant it was sure to be something going on there…”
“So now she just has to go home and start taking her medicine. We sat down and talked about it for an hour; I made her an appointment with her clinic to be seen and everything!”
“Wow, good for you. And for her.”
“Yeah,” said Hannah, sliding into his lap. Her khaki slacks ruffled against his jeans.
“So when something like that happens… I mean, how does anyone make sure that someone is taking their medications?”
“There isn’t a way to make sure. People just go out and you hope they’re okay. We only find out what happens if someone calls or they get re-admitted.”
“Sometimes you can get to be… a known entity. Most of the Family Medicine residents at Maryland used to know me because I would get admitted so often.”
“We had a patient like that this week. This old lady who feels nauseous all the time. She was actually back in the ER today but she got sent home. Gwen refused to admit her again.”
“You told me about that. The one who told you about her daughter the other day. She came back in?”
“Yeah, she did. I just… I think part of it is being a student and most of the day I’m following around the people who are writing orders and taking calls and dealing with stuff that comes up. But I feel helpless in situations like that. I try to listen and be empathetic and encouraging but it’s just exhausting.”
Adam nodded, stroking her hair. “Well, you’re just starting out. You have a lot to learn. And everyone says you do a great job. Dr. Chambliss thinks you’ll be a great family doctor, and that’s only based on what she saw of you when you were a first year. When do you get to rotate with her?”
“I have the first 3 months of internal medicine, then OB/GYN, then pediatrics… family medicine will be in December or January, I guess. Rita’s only one doctor in the family medicine department. But I will hopefully get to work with her a lot since she was my preceptor in first year. I’ll need a good letter of recommendation to apply for residency.”
“Is every rotation going to have these crazy hours?” asked Adam.
Hannah rolled her eyes. “Yes… pretty much, yeah. This is gonna be the next few years. Residency just gets worse, to be honest. The interns send me home when they know all they have left to do is paperwork, and I know sometimes they stay for an hour or two after I leave.”
“That seems like a weird system,” observed Adam.
“Well, I guess it sort of makes sense. You want to have as few handoffs between doctors as you can so that way there’s not too much confusion about what the plan is. Part of it is historical accident, too– the people who invented the medical education system we have now were either really driven to success, using cocaine, or both.”
“Really?” Adam’s face scrunched in repulsion.
Hannah nodded. “They told us all about it in this history of medicine lecture I went to last year. They’re called ‘residents’ because it used to be that they just lived at the hospital…”
“Hmm,” said Adam. “So… what you’re saying is that I should start getting used to you being home this late.”
Hannah bit her lip. “Um… well, I guess. I mean, I figured we both knew that being a doctor would be a lot of work and a lot of time.”
“It just sounds inhuman.”
“It’s just how the system works,” said Hannah. “It doesn’t mean… anything different for you and me.” She leaned forward more into Adam, bending her head down to kiss his forehead. He leaned back upwards to return the kiss, her hair enveloping his head as their lips met. The monotony of graduate school applications that had dominated his entire afternoon seemed like a distant memory and even the aching realization that her work was going to keep her locked away in the hospital for years seemed less intense than when it had hit him a few moments ago. Her tongue found his, erasing any thoughts he might have had of anything but her embrace. He savored the kiss for a few seconds before reaching his hands across her clean white blouse.
“Don’t you want dinner?” she asked. Her voice was subdued and sweet. “You must be hungry.”
“I just want you,” he replied, smiling wide.
“Okay, then,” she said. “Dinner can wait.”
His arms found her neck and knees, lifting her up as he rose from the chair. She giggled as he carried her out of the room, kicking off her shoes in mid-air as he swung her sideways to navigate the doorframe. He took a deep breath and moved slowly up the stairs, lifting her one step at a time.
“You don’t have to carry me all the way upstairs!” she mewled breathlessly. “It’s alright, you know.”
Adam grinned. “Nah, I can handle it.” As he reached the top stair, the monotonous singsong of his cellphone briefly interrupted their reverie; Hannah reached around into his pocket and pulled the phone free, allowing it tumble onto the carpeted hallway of the third floor. It continued to buzz and beep as Adam unceremoniously dumped Hannah onto their unmade bed and then leapt after her.
“Did you put your NuvaRing in this week?” he asked.
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “I always do! Did you take your pills?”
“Of course! Just… y’know, it’s been a busy week–” His thought was interrupted by another aggressive kiss.
They laughed and fumbled with one another’s pants, quickly kicking them off the bed with the tousled sheets. Adam pressed into Hannah frantically, as if at any moment she could be taken back to the hospital and away from him. She seemed to enjoy this and pushed back with just as much vigor, smiling as he felt his orgasm build up. He was surprised by how quickly it had come, but as he tried to hold back he remembered that it had been four or five days since their last time.
“Wait for me,” she gasped, her eyes closing as she spread out her palms across his lower back and pulled him closer.
“Trying!” pleaded Adam. Her movements beneath him were only making it harder and he mostly held still while she rocked back and forth. He felt an unbearable pressure building between his legs, stoked every second by her motion. Finally he let go, letting out a low moan. Between his meteoric buildup and her frantic movements, his orgasm alternated between blinding, white-hot pleasure and irritating friction.
“I love you,” he whispered.
“Mm-hmm,” she replied.
She kept going for another few minutes before she came, her normally pale skin flush and beaded with sweat. He watched her silently mouth his name three or four times before finally resting on the final syllable, her eyes closed above a blissful smile.
“Mmmmm,” he replied, closing his eyes and rolling over. Her fingers reached for his, each one finding a partner to wrap around. He felt a sudden weight on his chest, like he had just spent all of himself inside of her and was an empty vessel. He had experienced this before, but never quite as acutely. He wasn’t sure if it was the incredible intense, halfway painful orgasm or all the dark emotions that had preceded their tryst. Or if it was something else entirely.
“Does it happen to you?” he asked.
“What?” she asked.
“Sometimes after I come… it’s like this feeling of emptiness.”
“Of course,” she said. “It’s very common. The French call it la petite mort. The little death. Sometimes it feels very… transcendent, like you’ve achieved some higher consciousness or something. Sometimes it feels more empty and sad. It’s the release of oxytocin in your brain and it’s meant to be something that bonds you closer to the person that you’re having sex with.”
“Hmm,” murmured Adam. “You sure know a lot about this.”
“My Postfeminism, Sexuality, and Media class in college was pretty fascinating.”
Adam tried to contain a snort of laughter, which led him to his next thought. “One time some Christian kid was trying to talk to me about heaven. He said it was like having an orgasm all the time. Not that he’d ever been to heaven or anything. He might not have ever had sex, either.”
“If heaven is like an orgasm all the time, they’d better have a lot of hand towels up there,” quipped Hannah. “Is there one on the nightstand?”
Adam reached over with his free hand, searching for a washcloth but coming up empty. He got up from bed and walked over to the hall closet to retrieve one. The closet door brushed his phone along the rug as he opened it, reminding him of the missed call five minutes earlier. He picked up the phone to see that it had been from Dr. Chambliss.
“Uh oh,” he said.
“Uh oh what?” inquired Hannah, who had removed her wrinkled blouse and was putting on a t-shirt.
“I got labs drawn this week. It was Dr. Chambliss who called– she usually doesn’t call unless there’s a problem.”
“Oh no,” said Hannah, sighing. “Well, did she leave a voicemail?”
Adam had already brought up Rita’s message on speakerphone. “Hi Adam, it’s Dr. Chambliss. Just need you to give me a call when you can. You can use my cell; I’ll be up until 10 or so. Talk to you soon!”
“Not very informative,” said Adam.
“Listen, when you’re a doctor one day and you leave messages for patients… please don’t ever do that. I know you don’t want to tell people everything on a voicemail because you want to ask questions and explain results, but… when you leave a generic message like that, I have no idea if I’m about to die or whatever.”
“Do you feel okay?” asked Hannah.
“I feel fine,” said Adam. “I had that little flare two weeks ago for a few days and my transaminases bumped, but my INR was normal the whole time and everything was trending down.”
“Well, then, let’s call her back.” Hannah pulled on sweatpants and walked over to Adam, who stood staring at the phone as he brought up Rita’s contact. The phone rang three times before she picked up.
“Hi, Adam?” came her cheerful voice, crackling over the speakerphone.
“Hi, Dr. Chambliss, how are you?”
“I’m fine, Adam. How are you doing?”
“I’m good. Is everything okay?”
“You mean with your labs? Oh, yes, I’m sorry, I forgot about those. They came back yesterday all normal. I actually had something else I wanted to ask you about.”
“Oh?” Adam looked over at Hannah, who threw up her hands in puzzlement.
“Yeah… Dr. Bode is too proud to ask you himself, although he might try to mention it to Hannah if she corners him. He’s… lost some patients and his study is suffering for it. I know that you and Hannah are busy, but… he would probably be able to pay you for your time, at least. It would probably look good on your resume to say that you helped coordinate the psychosocial aspects of a big clinical study. And more than that, I think it would be a great way to help him out.”
“He’s certainly helped me enough lately,” said Adam. He looked back to Hannah, whose face seemed to convey a mixture of outrage and curiosity.
“As long as you understand everything about confidentiality– which I’m sure you do– I will e-mail you as much information as we have.”
“Wait, how do you know about them?”
“Solomon asked me to cross-check our family medicine electronic medical record and see which of them come to see us. One of them hasn’t been to us in quite a while, but another comes in every now and then looking for narcotics or whatever. If you’re up to it… it would mean a lot to him.”
Adam’s eyes nervously darted between the phone and Hannah. She gently nodded.
“I’ll do it,” he said. “Send ‘em to me.”
“Okay, thank you so much, Adam.”
“You’re welcome, Dr. Chambliss. It sounds like it’s something important to you, too.”
Adam felt a sudden twinge of remorse about what had come out of his mouth, realizing that while it easily applied to Rita’s interest in the research, it would be just as easy to assume that it referred to Rita & Solomon’s relationship. Hannah’s face seemed to reflect his own emotions.
Rita laughed. “Oh, you don’t know the half of it. If you are successful, I win a bet.”
“A bet?” exclaimed Adam.
“You know that Solomon doesn’t really care for all this psychosocial mumbo jumbo about changing behaviors. I’ll be honest with you– he has a hard time seeing people as anything more than a collection of moving, breathing, enzyme-producing parts. So I’ve bet him that by caring for these patients and meeting them where they’re at, he’ll get better data.”
“So… what do you win?” asked Hannah..
Rita giggled. “Oh, hello, Hannah! I hope third year is going well for you… the prize is our little secret!”
“Well, I won’t try to pry, Dr. Chambliss! We will do what we can to help.”
“Thank you, Hannah. We can’t wait to see you on your Family Medicine rotation! Still thinking you want to do surgery?”
“No, I’m really leaning towards Family Medicine or Internal Medicine now… I want to be a good primary care doctor and prevent people from needing to see transplant surgeons!”
“Good to hear!” said Rita. “We’ll be in touch. Good night!”
“Night,” mumbled Adam. He clicked the phone off and dropped it back onto the floor, then sat down on the bed next to Hannah, who immediately wrapped her arms around him and nuzzled her head into his shoulder.
“I just love you!” she said enthusiastically.
“Because I do crazy things like run off to Africa at a moment’s notice and agree to scour the city for a bunch of relapsed drunks?”
Hannah kissed him again. “Well… that and how good you’ve become in bed. Dinner?”
“Let’s eat,” said Adam.
Hannah looked up from her phone just long enough to see the green street sign she was looking for whiz past on the right. Her eyes followed the sign as their car moved further and further away from it. Finally it disappeared from view behind them as her mouth let out a frustrated squeak.
“Ack! Adam! Slow down!” she sputtered. Adam immediately obeyed by hitting the brakes hard, causing her to jolt forward and lose her grip on her phone, which tumbled forward onto the dashboard. He looked over in the same direction that she had just been.
“Was that it back there?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said curtly, reaching for her phone and peering closely at the map to see if they could get back by another turn on this one-way street.
“You don’t have to be so… y’know…”
Adam’s sentence was overwhelmed by the harsh, booming sound of engines from behind. He let his words trail off as he was overtaken on the road by a trio of dirt bikes that zoomed past, one on his left and two on his right. As they passed, the sound of the carburetors turning was painful. The young men riding the bikes– who looked to be maybe 15 or 16– struck various poses with their arms as they leaned back, pulling their front wheels off the ground. Hannah forgot about her frustration with Adam’s driving for a few seconds as she watched the bikes assume a nearly vertical position, still accelerating away from their car as the back wheels spun furiously against the ground. One boy held both arms out straight at 45-degree angles in an awkward “V” while his legs clutched the bike, while the other two clutched their handlebars with just one hand. Their opposite arms dangled disinterestedly, their fingertips nearly scraping the ground as they rode along.
They disappeared off into the distance, running a red light up ahead. As the explosive grinding sound faded away, Adam shook his head in disbelief.
“What on earth,” he mumbled.
“I had heard them before, but I’ve never seen them go by,” said Hannah. “That’s crazy.”
“He was– they were– like, going up straight. That’s so dangerous, going through traffic like that. Should we call the police?”
“No,” said Hannah. “Police won’t do anything. It’s too dangerous to chase them.”
“What about how dangerous it is for them to be running around like that?”
Hannah sighed. “They run into other cars more often when they’re chased or they do stupid things and crash. It’s a big controversy. I think it just goes to show that there aren’t enough good opportunities for young men in the city…”
Adam chuckled. “Somehow I knew we were going here.”
She gave him a playful push. “Sorry, I know you hear about it from me all the time. I guess I can get a little insufferable complaining about inequity and injustice for young black men in the city sometimes.”
“Sometimes. Where are we going?”
“Uh… I guess turn right here and we’ll work our way back. We were supposed to turn back there at Fulton. Try not to drive so fast next time!”
“Sorry, I thought you were going to tell me when it was coming up.”
“The sign was blocked by a tree.”
“It’s okay,” she said. “And you should also drive slowly in case we see him on the side of the road or something.”
“You really think we’re just going to see him out there just doing… whatever it is this guy does with his time?”
“Well, maybe,” said Hannah. “I mean, he told me that when he’s not working he’s usually out on some corner somewhere watching everyone play checkers?”
“Checkers?” said Adam, his voice slightly strained.
“Do you think chess is more appropriate?” retorted Hannah.
“No, I just… I dunno. What are we going to do when we find him, anyway? Drag his ass back to the hospital and dump him in Dr. Bode’s office?”
“Solomon told me that he’ll be working all afternoon and Rita is around. I have no idea what they have going on.”
“Some kind of deal,” They turned up a street lined on either side by vacant houses, the paint worn away and every window either broken or boarded up. A man stood alone on the corner at the end of the block, leaning forward and swaying gently on the curb. As they approached, Hannah wondered if perhaps this was their quarry, as he had a protruberant belly of his own. However, as they got closer she could tell it was not Gainers from the man’s thin, bony face.
“We’re seeing all sorts of gravity-defying things today,” observed Adam. Indeed, this man’s head was pushed straight forward and down, his eyes apparently fixed on his shoes if anything at all. His arms hung lifelessly at his side, gently moving like the branches of a tree in the wind despite the dead, still humid summer air outside. Every few seconds it looked as though he was going to topple off the curb and into the street, but he seemed to right himself in a precarious wobbly orbit.
“They were talking about that the other day,” said Hannah. “Apparently ‘the lean’ is quite famous in Baltimore. Another one of those things that you don’t believe until you really see it for yourself.”
“People are crazy,” observed Adam.
“Mmhmm,” agreed Hannah.
Adam looked over as they reached the stop sign at the end of the block. Their subject briefly took notice of them as he raised his head and stared with blank eyes before nodding back down.
“No thoughts on the outrageousness of the drug war or mental health policy in America?” asked Adam with a smirk.
“I’ll spare you,” said Hannah. “Some people are just crazy.”
They drove on, passing block after block of abandoned houses interspersed with busier and more occupied blocks. Kids raced up and down the sidewalk on scooters or bikes while their parents sat on the marble stoops in front of their houses. They passed several teenagers working together to open a fire hydrant, which gushed into the street just as Adam and Hannah were passing. They could hear the delighted squeals of the children outside even from inside their air-conditioned car.
“Okay, turn up here,” she said. They rounded a corner and Hannah finally recognized the block where she had been before. They parked behind a dusty green Acura and emerged from the car into the sweltering heat. Halfway down the block several of the houses had been razed and an anemic patch of grass was being trampled by two small boys tossing a football back and forth a tall. heavy man.
Hannah looked up to Jessi’s house to see her sitting in a folding chair next to her stoop with a large younger woman next to her. Hannah was not entirely certain, but the younger woman looked to be pregnant. They were passing a bag of baked Lay’s between them and laughing until they saw Hannah and Adam approach.
“Hannah, is that you?” remarked Jessi.
“Yes, Miss Goodson!” replied Hannah. She looked back to see Adam puttering slowly behind her. She was almost reassured that he was acting more awkwardly in this situation that she was.
“What you doin’ back here? Got some new crazy idea you need help with? Gonna get some more work out of me without payin’?”
Hannah laughed nervously. “Well, uh…”
Jessi rose and lurched toward Hannah with obvious effort, throwing her arms around Hannah’s shoulders when they met at the edge of the sidewalk. Hannah heard a long sigh and then felt Jessi squeeze her tightly.
“I’m just kiddin’. It’s good to see you again. You oughta come ‘round more often.”
Hannah smiled. “Who knows, maybe I should! It’s good to see you, too. How you been?”
“Oh, y’know, the devil been tryin’ to get me down but you know he ain’t nothing but a damn liar. ‘Scuse my language. I been good. Come on over. Crystal Light?” Jessi moved back over to her chair and sat down, reaching behind her into a cooler for a large pitcher, which she brandished with a red Solo cup.
“Oh, thanks! Sure is hot out here,” observed Hannah. Jessi began to pour two cups.
“You think it’s hot? You should try bein’ 7 months pregnant!” Jessi guffawed. “Oh, I’m sorry, you ain’t met.”
She nodded towards the young woman on the step, who rose and offered her hand to Hannah, who shook it.
“This my daughter Tanisha.”
“Oh, you’re pregnant? Congratulations!”
“Thank you,” said Tanisha with a gentle smile. Her skin darker than her mother’s and her face rounder. Her eyes were perfectly shaped, wide and dark behind long lashes. And even in this heat with sweat beaded all over her face and gathering on her tank top above her round breasts Hannah was struck by her beauty. Her hair was pulled into tight cornrows that ran into a weave around her neck.
“So who’s this young man here with you?” asked Jessi. “I feel like I seen him before but Lord help me, I can’t place it.”
“Oh! This is my boyfriend, Adam,” said Hannah. Adam tenuously moved forward to accept a cup from Jessi, who then shook his hand.
“Pleasure to meet you, Adam,” said Jessi with a grin. She turned to Hannah. “Had to take a little walk on the wild side, huh?”
Hannah chuckled awkwardly as Jessi guffawed at her own joke. Hannah immediately began to wonder where they would have met, followed quickly by thoughts about how driving through Baltimore with her black boyfriend looked. She was only cut off from pondering such by Jessi’s next question.
“So is this a social call or what?”
“Uh, well… we’re looking for Gainers. We tried to call– Dr. Bode had tried to call before, and sent a letter–”
Jessi shook her head and her prior grin disappeared. “Oh Lord.”
Hannah was not sure how to interpret this change in countenance. She worried for a few seconds that Gainers had perhaps died.
“My phone got cut off,” Jessi explained. “I saw that letter and I showed it to him, but he didn’t pay it no mind. Said his liver was better off now and he was gonna go on livin’ his life. He didn’t come home last night. We just been hopin’ and prayin’ he’s okay.”
“My god, that’s terrible!” exclaimed. “Did you call the-”
“The police say they looked around for him but I don’t know how hard they looked.” Jessi’s eyes narrowed. “In any case, if Gainers don’t want to come around he ain’t gonna come around. At least I know he ain’t been arrested or nothin’, and it ain’t like he never slept outside before.”
Hannah nodded slowly, trying to affirm what Jessi said with matching quantities of empathy and nonchalance. Jessi seemed quite familiar with the level of distance necessary to not have her life disrupted by the thought of her brother sleeping in an alleyway somewhere. Hannah shuddered as she wondered what she would do if she was ever faced with a similar situation.
“Oh, don’t be worryin’ about him.” Apparently Jessi could perceive the distress in Hannah’s face. “He out there somewhere, I can tell.”
“Okay,” said Hannah. “Well… do you know where he might have gone?”
Jessi laughed loudly. “Just stand on the corner and tell the world as loud as possible you gonna start some trouble and he’ll be at your side.”
“That’s, uh… a start, I guess,” said Hannah, mostly to respond with something rather than nothing.
“You wanna come inside and get some crabs? Tanisha brought over a dozen and you know I ain’t allowed too much salt!” Jessi again seemed delighted by her own humor while Hannah was rather uncomfortable about watching someone with numerous medical conditions affected by sodium intake raise her risk profile with a few bites.
“We’d love to!” said Adam, finally opening his mouth. Hannah looked back quickly to see him flashing a characteristic grin, his smooth face already working its charm on Jessi, who clasped his hands in hers.
“Well come on in!” Jessi’s delight was palpable in her grip as her hands moved over to shake Hannah’s with welcoming vigor. “Tanisha and I ain’t had proper guests in a long time. Everyone done moved out of this block and none of Gainers’ friends gonna darken my doorstep anytime soon unless I put a case of Bud Light in the fridge.”
She rose from her chair and turned towards the empty lot. “Boys, y’all come in and get some crabs!”
The two little boys responded with gentle protests and continued running around with the football until the man playing with them snatched the ball away. One of the boys clutched the ball desperately, swinging his legs in the air as the ball was lifted higher and higher until his sweaty fingers slipped off and he tumbled into the grass. With a little more coaxing, the man and the two boys, who appeared to be his sons, came over the porch. By this time Adam had already been drafted to bring the cooler inside while Hannah gathered up the chairs.
They all moved inside, back to the tightly packed living room with the couches and coffee table occupying most of the floor spaces and the television occupying most of the wall space. Hannah remembered the thick aroma of stale cigarette smoke instantly, although it was quickly broken by the sharp peppery odor of crab seasoning. Tanisha was unpacking a moist cardboard box while Jessi spread out newspaper on the kitchen table. As Hannah navigated the living room to set the chairs aside, she turned back to see the football players entering.
The tall man was instantly familiar to her: he was dark-skinned with thick dreads that fell to his shoulders. His features were angular and sharp, contrasting with his smoother, rounder arms and torso that billowed with extra fat. He was an imposing figure, and as she appreciated his size she remembered where they had met before.
“I seen you before, lady?” asked Dario.
“Yes. On the subway,” answered Hannah.
He smiled and nodded slowly. “Aw yeah, when I felt like clockin’ some joker on the train but just gave him a little ride in the opposite direction. It’s Hannah, right?”
She nodded in return. “And… Dario?”
“These your boys?” she asked.
“Well, uh…. they Tanisha’s kids, but you know we get along good. She still gonna be my baby mama!” Hannah felt a twinge of embarrassment and chided herself for being so quick to assume.
“So you guys met before?” asked Adam.
“Yeah,” said Hannah. “I told you about it. When that guy was bothering me on the subway.”
“Oh!” exclaimed Adam. “Oh. That. I see.”
He extended his hand to Dario, who shook it with a beefy fist. “Nice to meet you. I’m Adam. Hannah’s boyfriend.”
“Alright, well, you seem to have done okay for yourself,” said Dario with a grin. He turned down to the boys.
“Are you two gonna be gentlemen and introduce yourselves?” he inquired.
“Uh, yes!” exclaimed the older one. “My name’s Jamie.” He stuck out a skinny arm towards Adam to shake, vigorously doing so as soon as his hand was accepted. Adam smiled and returned the enthusiastic shake as their arms waved up and down.
“And how old are you, Jamie?” asked Hannah.
“I be seven in August!” he proudly proclaimed.
“Wow! That’s pretty old,” she observed.
“Yeah. I start second grade in the fall.”
“And how about you, young man?” asked Adam cheerily as he turned to the smaller, chubbier boy who was hiding behind Dario’s leg.
The boy mumbled. Hannah could not make out anything discernable. Dario gave him a gentle nudge. “Speak up, boy!”
“I said, my name’s Jaquan. I’m four.”
“Four is also a pretty cool age,” observed Adam, looking back to Hannah as if to validate his declaration. She smiled gently.
“Mmmm, I’m gonna get me some crabs!” announced Jamie. He dashed towards the kitchen, where Tanisha had just dumped the box onto the table. A pile of steaming crabs caked in dark red seasoning spilled onto the newspaper, elicitiing squeals of delight from the little boys.
“Pick me a crab, mommy!” implored Jaquan.
“Hush, you wait a second and be patient,” responded his mother, tossing the box aside. She gestured to Hannah and Adam. “C’mon y’all, have yourselves a seat.”
It was hot outside the house and hotter still inside. The sticky humidity was only intensified by the steam rising from the crabs lifeless bodies and Hannah felt thick beats of sweat already begin to accumulate on her face before she began to open a crab. The fact that she had to practically sit on Adam’s lap to squeeze around the tiny table and still kept brushing Tanisha’s arm or bosom with her elbow as she worked made it feel all the more hot. She picked up a crab and then licked her finger briefly to taste the salty red spice. Her nose began to run as her mouth watered.
Adam was fumbling with his crab, turning it over in his hands carefully as if it might reawaken and start clawing at him without warning as he searched for a place to open it. Hannah could not stifle her laughter at his puzzlement with the crab, and clearly the little boys shared her intrigue.
“He can’t open no crab?” asked Jamie incredulously. He had already dissected half a crab and was digging his fingers around the carapace to extract the lumps of white meat. He nudged Adam with a free elbow.
“Here, watch this,” he said as he took the crab out of Adam’s hands and into his own “First you get the claws.”
Hannah absentmindedly broke the claws off of her own crab as she watched Jamie masterfully do the same, tearing each one free of the crab’s body and pulling hunks of meat along with them. He took a butter knife from the table and whacked it hard along the larger claws as he pulled them apart, pulling the meat from inside them and piling it in front of Adam.
“See these big claws got a lot of meat inside, but the little ones ain’t got so much.” He pulled off the remaining legs and tossed them in a small pile for later before returning to the main carapace. He slid the knife into the crab’s underside, prying it open between his fingers to reveal a messy pile of guts topped by a yellowish-brown goop. On either side of the intestines were thin, curved gills full of tiny slits. Adam wondered where any more meat could come from.
“So these here be the lungs. Don’t eat them. They be poisonous,” explained Jamie matter-of-factly as his fingers brushed the gills. He scooped out the intestines with the knife and deposited the sticky mess on the table.
“Some people eat the mustard, some don’t. It’s up to you.”
“What… is it?” asked Adam.
Hannah smiled. “It’s the liver, actually. And the pancreas, too. All in one organ.”
“Is it bad for you?”
“Uh… well, the crabs all live in the Chesapeake Bay and the liver, as you know, filters all the toxins of the body, so…”
“I’ll pass,” said Adam.
“Mommy loves the mustard but Dario never eats it,” reported Jamie. “I don’t like it.”
Adam grinned. “Well, okay, I guess I’m with Dario on this one for now.”
Hannah wondered if she should say anything about the health effects of whatever lived in the crabs’ hepatopancreas on a developing child but she quickly thought better of it.
“Okay, now you got all that shit out–”
“Jamie! “ exclaimed Tanisha, reaching out a seasoning-stained stained hand across Hannah and Adam. Before Hannah could realize what had happened, there was a trail of red dust across the back of Jamie’s stubbly head. He let out of his yelp of pain and his lip quivered slightly, but when he looked from his mother’s cross face to his stepfather’s only slightly less concerned one, he swallowed hard and turned his face back to Adam’s crab.
“Sorry. I ain’t s‘posed to talk like that,” he mumbled to the crustacean than anyone else.
“S’okay,” said Adam. “Let’s not talk like that anymore.”
Hannah again felt dumbfounded and uncomfortable, her face feeling more swollen and red than the heat and humidity in the tiny kitchen had already made it. She began to wonder what she might say to comfort Jamie over his clearly hard blow without alienating the other adults who clearly approved of this punishment, but the young expert had already resumed his lecture.
“So now you got all that… stuff out, so the next thing you gotta do is open up the crab. Now watch this, you cut it in half twice…”
Hannah was immediately intrigued, as she was used to trying to break up each portion of hard shell guarding the flesh beneath, but Jamie was deftly slicing the shell away from itself, cutting it along the axial plane to reveal the now easy-to-pick meat. He pushed the open shell back to Adam, who took it in his hands and began to dig around and pull out the rather large chunks of crescent-shaped crabmeat with his fingers. He tasted a bite.
“Pretty good,” he murmured.
“Naw, see, what you gotta do next is take the top shell…” Jamie flipped over the upper shell with its jagged spines sticking out all around and then pinched a glob of seasoning between his fingers. He then scooped up a healthy-sized hunk of meat from inside the lower shell. “That way you get all them spices.”
Adam repeated Jamie’s actions and murmured affirmatively and he tasted the mixture of flesh and seasoning. “Much better. Now let me try again with opening it.”
Hannah moved her attention back to Tanisha and Jessi, each of whom were picking a crab for Jaquan, who in turn was grabbing fistfuls of white, stringy meat and devouring them.
“When are you due?” she asked.
“Two more months,” said Tanisha.
“Can’t come soon enough!” exclaimed Jessi.
“Lord have mercy,” said Tanisha, shaking her sweaty head. “Ain’t you a doctor? Wanna cut this baby outta me now?”
Hannah chuckled nervously. “Oh, I wish I could…”
She let her words trail off, almost adding the word “sister” onto the end of them to punctuate her sentence. She thought better of it, since it would probably sound hokey and forced coming from her mouth. Tanisha didn’t seem to mind either way.
“That’s alright. Gotta let the little bun finish all his cookin’!”
“So it’s a boy?” inquired Adam, clearly observing the pronouns used in a way that warmed Hannah’s heart. Getting Adam to talk when they were out together had never been particularly easy and she was glad that he was jumping in..
“Yup. Gonna be Dario Young Junior. Big and strong like his pop!”
Dario smiled as demurely as a man closer to seven feet than six with muscle and fat packed all the way up could. “Gotta raise him up right, though.”
“Oh, you know that’s true,” said Jessi. “Kids these days ain’t got no respect. You should hear the things they sayin’ to each other when I go to pick the boys up!”
“No respect,” murmured Tanisha.
Hannah and Adam nodded along in general agreement with the sentiment. She kept picking her crab, but her gaze wandered from the table back to the living room, where from her corner she could still see the high school photos shot with their gauzy portrait style. The one furthest to the right was quite obviously Tanisha, although clearly younger. The other two, however, stood out– their skin tones were clearly lighter, much closer to Jessi’s. She finally decided to ask a question that had been nagging at her ever since she had first come to the house, although as she pondered how to ask it she wondered if she had not heard anything about the subjects of the other portraits because there was not much good to say.
“So, that’s Tanisha up there on the wall,” she said as she nodded in the direction of the living room and the portraits, where no one else at the table could see but her. They instantly knew, though, as Jessi’s face changed right away. Rather than shock, surprise, anger, or even sadness– all things that Hannah had braced herself for– Jessi’s countenance took on a wistful, dreamy look that Hannah had only uncovered once or twice before when they had been planning the health rally and they had both gotten carried away at the prospects of what the rally could mean to people.
“Oh, they’s my angels up in heaven,” explained Jessi. Her tone was matter-of-fact, although Hannah noticed that Adam looked confused by the terminology until Jessi launched into a more detailed explanation.
“Jenisha had the sickle cell. She passed when she was 11, but she was in and out of the hospital all her life. We had some struggles with taking care of her.”
“I don’t remember much about her ‘cause I was only 4 when she pass, but she was so sweet,” interjected Tanisha. “She always got balloons when she get admitted and she let me play with them ‘til all the air was out.” Her face broke into a gentle smile from her previous stern aloofness that she had held since Hannah had first met her outside. It was if Jessi’s forthrightness had tugged Tanisha along.
“My boy Alonzo got shot when he was 19. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time and had just decided that he was gonna turn his life around and get on back to get his G-E-D.” She enunciated each letter carefully, as if to emphasize their importance. Hannah nodded quietly, acknowledging the weight of this painful information even as she began to wonder what it must have been like to suffer the death of two children.
“But even that wasn’t enough to wake me up,” said Jessi. Her eyes turned from Hannah to Adam and back. While it seemed obvious that she was giving this information for their benefit, Hannah felt like her words were more pointed, as if she had a hidden agenda that Hannah couldn’t ascertain. She was certainly more forthright than she had been in any of their previous meetings, which made Hannah wonder what had changed that now she was willing divulge these family secrets and even her own feelings about them. Hannah stared back, waiting for the next horrific detail, as Jessi’s story had already drawn enough suspense in her mind to keep her interested.
“No, it wasn’t ‘til I knew that Jamie was comin’ that I decided it was time to stop drinkin’ and get my life right with God. I was at the end of my self and I had to turn to Him.” There were affirming murmurs from Dario, Tanisha, and Adam.
Jamie spoke up. “Grandma, was you like one of them crazy ladies that’s always yellin’ and hollerin’ on the corner when we comin’ home from school together?”
Jessie guffawed. “Jamie, you don’t know the half of it, boy. What do I always tell you about drinking and drugs?”
“They’s bad for you and they make you crazy! God don’t approve of neither!” chanted both boys together, Jaquan snapping to more alertness and enthusiasm than Hannah had seen yet. They had both heard this before. Jessi seemed to draw something out of each family member with her stories and even though the crab pile was quickly dwindling the conversation did not appear to be anywhere near stopping. Hannah began to wonder if they were going to run out of daylight to find Gainers.
“Things was never as easy for Gainers as it was for me,” observed Jessi, as if Hannah’s thoughts about him had brought him to Jessi’s mind, too. “I guess it’s his schizo-affective or whatever, but we went to all them meetings together and he been comin’ and goin’ for years.”
“Where do you think he might be now?” asked Hannah.
“Who knows?” said Jessi. The shrug that accompanied her answer seemed almost heartless at first, but Hannah immediately chided herself for judging Jessi’s complacency at her brother’s wanderings when she thought about how much of a burden he must have been for years and years.
“You still got his knife, Ma?” asked Tanisha.
“Oh, I got rid of that thing soon as I could get my hands on it.”
“Knife?” asked Hannah.
Jessi’s face finally fell, as if Hannah had probed a little too far. She bit her lip and murmured an apology.
“Oh, it’s alright. Gainers, he used to have a switchblade. Mother-of-pearl handle. Got it from some other boy that he beat in a fight, and even when he was poor and desperate he’d never sell it even though he coulda got fifty or sixty dollars at least if he wanted. But he done some bad things with it.” She shook her head. “Some real bad things.”
Hannah sighed even as her teeth dug in deeper. “Well, I appreciate you sharing your story with me.” She had used that line over and over since undergrad, trying hard to affirm the sanctity of self-revelation whenever the opportunity presented itself for her.
“I wanna hear about your family,” said Jessi, her face changing again to a warmer smile to invite Hannah in.
“Mm-hmm,” said Jessi with a nod. “You got any brothers or sisters?”
Hannah shook her head. “Nope, only child. I grew up in Columbia. My dad was a teacher and my mom ran a bookstore. I have some cousins up in Connecticut but we don’t see them very often and they’re all younger than me.”
“And you been to Africa, right? Tell us, how them black people over there? They’s really poor, right?”
Hannah seemed a bit taken aback by the question. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you told me once ‘bout how you like to go over and raise some money to help ‘em get medical care and all that, and I just thought that was real sweet even if you was a bit naive.”
Hannah’s cheeks flushed and she could hear Adam chortling beside her..
“I seen ‘em on the TV, they ain’t got nothin’ over there,” observed Tanisha.
“Yeah, we was watchin’ this program about– what was it called– Burkina Faso? Lots of desert. Not many doctors. Here at least you get sick you can go to the ER and they save your life, but over there you got an appendix or a gallbladder gotta come out, you better pray it get better on its own!” chimed in Dario, his gruff voice sharp and crisp. “We sent in twenty dollars to the International Red Cross ‘cause you know every bit helps.”
“And my class collected school supplies to send to Kenya with one of our teachers!” volunteered Jamie.
“The health needs are certainly… different,” said Hannah, a little surprised at the level of interest that this entire family demonstrated in the poverty of Africa. She was not quite sure what it was they wanted to know about her experiences, but at least no one had asked her yet about eating bugs, which had been a staple question when she was returning from her trips in high school and college.
“I guess… the people there are very friendly and welcoming,” she began. “There was a strong culture of hospitality and a big emphasis on family. I guess a lot like here.”
Jessi raised her eyebrows. “So they just like us, huh?”
Hannah was not sure where Jessi was trying to go with her questions. “Well, not exactly the same. Some of them had never seen a white person before. The kids kept trying to touch my hair– they couldn’t get over blonde, straight hair!”
The other adults chuckled at her statement as she wiped her sweaty brow on the sleeve of her t-shirt.
“I guess… there wasn’t the same history. I mean, Ghana had been a colony but there was a peaceful transition of power. People had some odd expectations about what I could do in terms of healthcare… like I could see all their kids and stuff. It took a long time to figure out a way to help the community in a way that was sustainable. They kept asking me for gobs of money and buildings and stuff. It wasn’t until this drug company got involved that we were able to get a lot done. It wasn’t easy, trusting the big business to do what was right. But we were as careful as we could be to have the community involved in all the decision-making.” She wasn’t sure if she should mention Adam’s involvement or not and decided to leave that to him when he was ready to share..
Jessi nodded. “I guess they ain’t had a white person knockin’ on their door every five minutes from University of Maryland School of Social Work or School of Medicine or School of Mindin’-Other-Folks-Business like us have.”
Hannah laughed. “I guess not, though there’s enough one-week trips full of high schoolers on some mission that it’ll happen soon enough.”
“You been there, Adam?” asked Dario. “I guess… don’t know how long you two been together or whatnot…”
“Oh, I’m from there,” answered Adam.
“Oh! You from the motherland!” chirped Jessi.
Adam was clearly surprised by her comment but seemed to take it in stride. “I guess you can call it that, yeah. I mean… I left when I was young, and didn’t come back ‘til Hannah invited me. So I don’t remember it too much.”
Jessie nodded appropriately. “Well, you seem to fit in okay with the rest of us!” She laughed again.
“Thanks,” he mumbled in reply.
Hannah looked down at her watch. It was already 6:30 and she still had hopes to find Gainers before the sun set. Jessi clearly noticed the pensive look on her face as she looked down.
“Honey, you two got to go find my brother, huh?”
Hannah looked up. “Well… we would love to stay all afternoon and chat. But we promised…”
“Oh, I ain’t about to let no one back down on their promises. Especially to Dr. Bode. Not after all he done for Gainers.”
“He’s a good man,” remarked Adam.
“Oh, you know– wait a minute!” Jessi’s face lit up with recognition. “That’s where I seen you before! You been in his office!”
Adam nodded affirmatively.
“Oh,” said Jessi. “Oh my. You’s the one patient who ain’t drunk his liver to death.”
This time Adam shook his head.
“Oh, honey,” she said quietly. “Lord done a miracle in Gainer’s life, but he done a bigger one in yours. I read that story in the paper. How you was so sick and– well, I ain’t gonna embarrass you in front of everyone, but I know you had a rough path.”
“No, it’s okay,” said Adam. “I mean, I talked to the reporters, I guess it’s all public.”
“Them reporters didn’t know you was sweet with the research assistant, though, did they?” Jessi’s smirk was nearly overpowering. Adam laughed and Hannah continued to feel her face get even more flushed.
“Fortunately, that all went down after the reporters went home.” Adam began to absentmindedly play with a crab claw in his hands.
“Well, you learn something new every day, don’t ya?” said Jessi, still smirking. She paused for an awkward moment before changing the subject. “Well, I’ll tell you what. Best places to find Gainers right now outside of the blocks around here are either down on MLK panhandlin’ or else up along 29th Street ‘cause there’s a shop up there that sometimes he sweep up if they need the help. If he already started drinkin’, though, there ain’t no tellin’ where he at.”
“We appreciate anything you know,” said Hannah. “And… I’m sure Dr. Bode appreciates it, too.”
Jessi smiled. “Give him my apologies. And my thanks.”
“Okay,” said Hannah. Again her mind was troubled by Jessi’s apparent change in mood. Her blunt, biting words were still ever-present, but her sarcasm and suspicion had waned a little. Perhaps the illnesses she’d suffered in the interim had taken her down a notch? Was she just letting her guard down with Hannah a little more?
“Y’all are welcome in this house any time you want,” she concluded.
“Well, we are so thankful that you invited us in,” said Hannah.
“It was good to finally meet you for real instead of just bumping into each other in Dr. Bode’s waiting room,” said Adam.
“You too, sweetie,” replied Jessi.
“And the rest of the family, too!” chirped Hannah. “You have some energetic boys here.”
Jamie and Jaquan had by this point gotten bored and were using the discarded crab appendages littering the table to fight one another. Adam chuckled as their sound effects of their battle grew louder and louder.
“It was nice to meet you,” said Tanisha. “If you get bored with your doctor stuff you can always come over and help me get this baby out!”
“I’ll do what I can,” said Hannah with a laugh. She and Adam took their turns washing the crab spice and sticky crab innards from their hands, though even after vigorously scrubbing their fingertips were still stained red. They waved goodbye to the family as Jessi let them out the door and followed them onto the porch, drawing the door behind her.
“Listen, when you find Gainers… you just be careful. You hear me?”
“Careful of what?” asked Adam incredulously..
Jessi rolled her eyes. “He’s been unstable. Inconsistent with his medications. Since he lost his insurance it’s been hard getting him to his appointments, getting his meds, and you know he needs all his medications, every day.”
Hannah nodded. “We won’t do anything stupid.”
“Too late,” mumbled Jessi.
Hannah’s eyebrows went up. Jessi grinned.
“Just kidding. I do appreciate you lookin’ out for him. You and the good Lord both not gonna let him go easy.” Her arm slid around Hannah to embrace her and Hannah tried not to flinch as Jessi’s saggy arm flesh spilled more sweat into her shirt. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” said Hannah, returning her embrace hesitantly.
Jessi looked to Adam and then hugged him, too. “Now you take care of this young lady. Jesus! Wanderin’ all over Baltimore lookin’ for a crazy man to fill him full o’ drugs. Lord have mercy.”
Gainers pushed his broom along the faded white linoleum, the dirty bristles scraping along the long-hardened residue on the storeroom floor. The broom only caught the most recent dust and dirt from the shoes of the kitchen staff, and Gainers thought to himself that at some point he might try to earn an extra few dollars by getting down on his hands and knees and scrubbing if he could find a better brush somewhere around here.
He missed working at the Inner Harbor. Even on the hottest days of the summer when he would sweat and sweat until his shirt hung heavy with moisture, the sun and fresh air were invigorating to him. He feared, though, that if he came back to his boss downtown there would only be a shake of the head and a hostile glare to greet him. Though he had experienced both time and time again for most of his adult life, they had not lost their ability to unnerve him and stir up the cacophony of voices that were now more or less constant throughout the day since he had stopped taking his medicine.
It occurred to him frequently that he might try to go back to Jessi’s house and at least retrieve his medication bottle, but as soon as he began to consider that he imagined her wrath descending upon him and he could not muster the courage to face that possibility again. For now, he thought, he would continue leaning on the kindness of the crabhouse owner, who appreciated Gainers’ sporadic efforts over the years and was happy to pay him twenty dollars a day to keep this room and the kitchen somewhat clean. Gainers had wondered from time to time what happened to the floor when he was not around, but he assumed that there were probably others like him willing to do a little work for a little cash.
He heard conversation going on up front, which was not unusual for this time of day when customers would start to come in to pick up orders for the evening. The voices– like the ones he heard throughout the day– were indistinguishable and hushed beyond the thin wooden walls, but then he heard a clearer voice, the voice of the owner.
“Yeah, he’s in the back.”
Gainers was suddenly struck by a new sense of fear. Only a few of his friends from the corner knew that he came here and worked sometimes; he had no idea who would come looking for him here. He wondered if perhaps the police had gotten up to serving old warrants again or if perhaps there was something new he’d done and perhaps not realized at the time that would bring the cops around. He hastily flung the broom to the side, scattering his current dust pile before the door to the room opened and a fresh burst of fluorescent light exposed him even as he tried to turn away.
“Gainers!” came a voice, very distinct and very much not a hallucination. He hoped it was anyway.
“You ain’t got nothin’ on me!” he called out defensively, not looking back as he headed for the back door and fumbled with the heavy bolt and chain.
“Gainers, what are you doing?” asked a male voice.
He was not quite sure of what his answer was, so he kept struggling until he felt a gentle hand on him. He turned to see a dark-skinned young man smiling at him. He recognized the face but could not put a name to it; the familiarity scared him all the more as he feared that this might be someone that had once loaned him money or worse.
“Hey. It’s Adam. Do you remember me from Dr. Bode’s office?”
“D-Dr. Bode?” Gainers looked from the young man to the blonde woman next to him, who was also incredibly familiar but her name escaped him, too.
“Remember? From University of Maryland? The doctor you gave you your liver back?” she implored.
“Dr. Bode…” said Gainers with a slow nod. He tried to make peace with the fact that these two people– both taller than him– had him trapped against the locked door.
“Yes. You remember Dr. Bode. And me. I’m Hannah. His assistant.”
“I do remember you,” he said, smiling nervously. “And Dr. Bode. Yeah. He’s… not a people person.”
They both laughed and looked at each other. Gainers wondered if perhaps he could make a run for it past them through the front of the store, but reasoned that he’d probably be too slow.
“You haven’t been taking your liver medicine lately, have you?” asked Hannah.
Gainers briefly considered lying but then realized it would only frustrate his inquisitors. “Uh, no, not every day.”
“As much as Dr. Bode would love to find out what happens when you start and stop, there were inconsistent results in mice and most of them required lifelong doses to sustain normal liver function.”
Gainers allowed a puzzled look to spread across his face.
“She means if you don’t want your liver to crap out on you again, you gotta keep taking the medication,” explained Adam.
“Even if I ain’t been drinking?” asked Gainers.
“Even if you ain’t been drinking,” answered Adam.
Oh,” muttered Gainers. “I guess Dr. Bode ain’t too happy with me, then.”
“Dr. Bode mostly just wants you back,” said Hannah, her face growing in concern. “He doesn’t care where you’ve been or what you’ve been up to– he just needs you to help finish his project.”
“Well, I just don’t know.”
Gainers turned his eyes back to his feet, trying to avoid the expectant gazes falling on him. He tried to weigh the risks of going back downtown where surely they would again be taking blood and sticking needles into his abdomen. They were probably not going to be too comfortable with his decision to live on his own here in the back storeroom and they would probably push him harder to take more medicines to quiet his voices.
“What do I get out of it?” he asked.
“You get to keep your liver that works,” intoned Hannah dramatically.
“Well,” said Gainers. “I guess when you put it that way…”
“C’mon, let’s go,” said Adam, putting a hand to Gainers’ shoulder. He pulled away, but then took a hesitant step forward.
“I guess I ain’t got much choice,” he mumbled. “I do like my new liver.”
“Then let’s get moving,” said Hannah, turning back towards the door. Gainers shuffled behind, leaving the light on as he emerged into the front of the store and behind the counter.
“You in trouble, Gainers?” asked his manager.
“No, Larry, these be my friends. They lookin’ out for me.”
A skeptical look crossed Larry’s enormous face. “These your friends? I done met your friends, Gainers. Most of them can’t tell which end of the broom goes on the floor, much less sweep up like you.”
“Well, it’s a little more complicated than that…” Hannah began to explain, but Gainers cut him off.
“I’m gonna be alright. Gotta go on downtown and get my liver fixed up.”
Larry’s face turned from suspicion to concern. “I didn’t realized your liver was giving you problems again.”
“Oh, it ain’t. I just be tryin’ to head anything off at the pass, y’know. They say it’s all about prevention!”
“I guess they do,” muttered Larry. “Well, just as long as you’re back in time tomorrow to mop the floor before my customers arrive.”
“Don’t you worry, sir,” said Gainers with a wide grin. “You know I’ll take care of making this place look good.”
The three of them then slowly moved out the main door, the bells attached to its frame chiming as it closed shut behind them. Gainers followed Hannah and Adam to a beat-up gold Acura parked just outside. The air outside was just as thick with the smell of crab seasoning as the air inside as people loaded up crates and cardboard boxes full of warm crabs into their trunks. Gainers climbed into the backseat, nervously feeling the cloth and fumbling with his seatbelt as Hannah climbed into the driver’s seat and started the car. The air conditioning came on immediately, which Gainers was quite thankful for as it was rather hot inside the car.
“So, we goin’ downtown?” he asked.
“We are indeed,” said Hannah, turning back to face him briefly as she put the car in reverse and backed out of their parking spot. “Adam, do you want to call Solomon?”
“Sure.” Adam pulled out his phone and quickly made his call. Gainers wondered if his body odor was detectable from where they sat; he had not showered in a day or two and was not normally in close enough quarters with anyone to be noticed. He had grown accustomed to his own smells and couldn’t tell for himself how bad it was. He let the anxiety eat at him throughout the whole ride.
“Dr. Bode? It’s Adam. We found him.”
“He was working at a restaurant up on 29th Street… we’ll be there in half an hour or so. Where should we meet you?”
The car rolled through a green light and onto the ramp for I-83, twisting around several curves before merging onto the highway. Gainers watched the buildings rush by with fascination, as he usually took the bus downtown and chugged along down St. Paul Street.
“Have you been working there for a while, Gainers?” asked Hannah.
Gainers took a moment to realize that she had been talking to him. “Well, uh, I been there on and off for a real long time.”
“But this time, how long?”
“I dunno, maybe a week or so.”
“Your sister is worried about you, y’know,” said Adam.
The view of the city dropped from Gainers’ view as he hung his head. “Yeah, I know.” He immediately thought to himself that she was probably angrier than she was worried.
“So, uh, how did you find me then? Did she tell you?”
“No, your friends on the corner sent us up to Pearson’s Florist on North Avenue,” answered Hannah.
“Oh, yeah, sometimes they let me work there, too, but not lately,” explained Gainers. “So they told you where I was?”
“They said it was either there or the emergency room. Have you been having any symptoms lately?”
“Uh, nope…” said Gainers. “My belly’s been fine, my balls ain’t– well, you know. I won’t be, uh, inappropriate with a lady or nothin’.”
Hannah clearly stifled a laugh, which Gainers enjoyed. “Well, I’m glad you’re doing okay. And Dr. Bode will be happy to hear that your new liver is working fine.”
“We’ll have to see what my father says,” quipped Adam. “If you only need a years’ worth of HepatoLife to keep your liver, our stock price might go down!”
Hannah laughed and Gainers chuckled along even though he had no idea why it was funny. They had gotten off the highway and were inching their way past the Maryland Institute College of Art, which Gainers had always found a reliable place to panhandle when there weren’t too many police around. The college’s alternating green and white glass panes shimmered in the late afternoon sun as kids hawking water bottles dodged in between cars to make their sales.
“How did you connect with Dr. Bode for the trial?” asked Adam.
“I could ask you the same question,” replied Gainers. He realized after he had spoken that what he meant to be funny might have sounded harsh, but he wasn’t quite sure how to take it back.
“Oh. Well, my father works for the company that makes HepatoLife. He knew that Dr. Bode was looking for funding and registered me for the trial. I’m kind of the odd one out in the group, I guess.”
“So your father helps make it? Wow! It must be pretty damn important if I’m gettin’ picked up outta my hideout at the crab shack by the son of…”
Adam laughed. “I wish it were that way. I’m just a kid trying to do Dr. Bode a favor. Since he did me an awful big favor.”
“Oh, so you mean you… oh.” Gainers began to fully realize the significance of Adam’s statements, coupled with their first meeting at Dr. Bode’s office. His liver must have been failing, too– but he was awfully young to have already drank so much. His quiet, Even as things made more sense, they became less clear.
“So, uh, you was havin’ liver problems, too?”
Adam nodded. “It was… pretty bad.”
“And you so young! That’s crazy, man.”
“Started when I was 9 years old.”
Gainers shook his head. “You started drinkin’ when you was 9 years old? I was 12, but man, I don’t think I ever heard of…”
Adam chuckled, interrupting him.
“Huh? Why you laughing?”
“Oh, Gainers, I wasn’t drinking when I was 9. I have autoimmune hepatitis.”
“Is that like the kind from shooting drugs?”
Adam shook his head. “No, it’s the kind where your immune system attacks your own body.”
“Oh. Like the gout. Some of my buddies got that gout real bad, their toes get all swole up and all.”
“Yes, like the gout,” chimed in Hannah.
“So instead of your toe, your liver swells and hurts? God-damn, that must hurt.”
“Mm-hmm,” said Adam with a slow nod.
Gainers shivered for a second at his earlier ignorance. “That musta been rough, at only 9 years old. Mmmm. No wonder you feel an obligation to, uh, help out the good doctor.”
“Well… that ain’t nothin’ like my story. I was in the hospital every other week with my belly swelling and goin’ crazier than normal with all those toxic by-products and all in my brain. One day I was just layin’ there in my hospital bed wondering if I was gonna die when Dr. Bode walks into my room. I didn’t realize who he was, and you know I’d seen so many doctors by that point ain’t nothin’ special to see. But then he says that he could give me a new liver, well, boy you’d better bet I paid attention…”
“We’re here!” announced Hannah. Gainers looked up and, indeed, they had arrived at the enormous brick hospital building. There were a few nurses and patients smoking in the far corner of the patio, but other than them, only a security guard and a parking attendant stood outside.
“Why don’t I go find a parking spot and you two go inside?” offered Hannah.
“Sure,” said Adam. “Let’s go, Gainers.”
They both got out of the car, Gainers looking both ways as he stepped onto the sidewalk. He followed Adam through the glass revolving door and up to the security desk, where they both received visitor wristbands before proceeding to the set of six elevators in the hallway beyond. The atrium was unusually quiet and calm; the cafeteria behind them was darkened and only a handful of people sat near the revolving door, waiting for their ride home.
“Where we goin’ to?” asked Gainers.
“Up to Dr. Bode’s office.”
The elevator doors opened and the two proceeded inside.
“What’s he gonna do to me?”
“I have no idea,” mumbled Adam. “He just told me to find you and tell you that you’re not in trouble.”
“He gonna draw my blood?”
“Motherfucker.” He paused, briefly considering the sensibilities of his young companion. He decided to cover his bases, just to be sure. “ ‘scuse my language.”
“It’s okay,” replied Adam with a chuckle.
They got off the elevator on the fourth floor, which was only slightly less familiar to Gainers than the first. Clearly Adam knew it better than he, as he strode confidently to the glass doors with“Transplant Surgery” stamped in gold across at eye level. The office inside was dark, and Gainers felt his skin tingling. Nausea built up inside of his stomach, and he swore he could hear a low moan, something foreboding just around the corner. He grabbed Adam’s hand as it reached for the door handle, gripping tightly.
“It ain’t safe, man. Don’t go in there.”
Adam turned, a skeptical look crossing his face.
“What are you talking about? It’s fine. Dr. Bode is inside.”
Gainers shook his head, not releasing his fingers from Adam’s. “Somethin’s not right.”
Adam’s countenance changed just a little, as if he recognized something in Gainers’ fear. Gainers could not tell, but he could feel Adam’s hand relax beneath his.
“Why don’t I go in first, and then you can follow behind me?”
“And leave me out here in this hallway all by myself?” snapped Gainers. “Man, you crazy.”
The light in the office flickered on, and Gainers jumped back in surprise as he let out a yelp. He turned as if to run, but then he saw Dr. Bode’s stocky figure emerge from inside the office, coming to the door.
“Oh, did it lock itself on you? I hate it when that happens…” he muttered from behind the glass. He fidgeted with the door for a minute before he opened it to Adam and Gainers, a broad smile crossing his face.
“Well, if it isn’t Gainers Goodson,” he said in a low voice as he extended his hand. “I’m glad you’ve come back.”
Gainers cautiously shook his hand. “It’s, uh, good to be back, sir.”
“Come on back,” he said, gesturing to within the offices. Gainers hesitantly followed him in, with Adam behind them both. As they walked from the darkened reception area to the fluorescent lights of Dr. Bode’s personal office, a pleasant female voice greeted them
“Hello there. You must be Gainers.”
He stopped looking around and behind to focus on the rather attractive woman standing in the small office. Her hair was long and curly and her body was shaped in ways that Gainers only ever saw from a distance or in a hospital. But what delighted him the most was her gentle smile, which did not blow him away with enthusiasm but invited him to sit down and be quiet for a moment.
“Well, hello. That’s me,” he said, extending his hand.
She shook it confidently. “It’s nice to meet you, Gainers. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Oh goodness,” he said. “Hope none of it’s bad.”
She chuckled quietly. “Nothing that’s made me any less eager to meet you.”
“So, are you a doctor, too?”
She nodded. “My name is Dr. Rita Chambliss, and I’m a family doctor. Let’s sit down.”
The four of them walked to a consultation room further back in Dr. Bode’s office. Gainers vaguely remembered signing a lot of papers in this room prior to his surgeries, but that was about all. It was painted a dull yellow and was most notable for its heavy nondescript office table occupying most of the floor space. Gainers took a seat in a far corner, only to have the others bunch uncomfortably around him.
“Do you have a primary care doctor, Gainers?”
He thought for a second, then shook his head. “Uh-uh. People been sayin’ for a while I oughta get one, but I just ain’t never found the time or made the appointment.”
“So Dr. Bode has really been acting like your primary care doctor, then?”
The growl that emerged from Dr. Bode’s mouth was somewhat alarming to Gainers.
“Uh… I guess so. In a manner of speakin’. I dunno what a primary care doctor does.”
“That’s okay,” said Dr. Chambliss, her voice reassuring against Dr. Bode’s obvious agitation. Gainers did not understand what had displeased him, but it was clear from the look on his face that he was unhappy.
She continued. “You don’t have to prove that you know anything or jump through any hoops for us, Gainers. We’re here to hear from you.”
The homonym stuck in Gainers’ head, repeating it to himself several times before he began mumbling it to himself, even as she continued speaking. Here to hear. Hear to here. He came back to the conversation only when Dr. Bode spoke again, this time with slightly more frustration. Gainers did not hear the specific words, but the two immediately turned to each other.
“Give him a minute. I was clearly droning on for too long without engaging him,” said Dr. Chambliss forcefully.
“This is a waste of time,” said Dr. Bode. Gainers was not sure what Dr. Bode meant, but clearly he was displeased with Gainers’ performance so far.
“Gainers, are you okay?” asked Dr. Chambliss.
The question caught him off guard, as usual. “Well– uh, I guess I can’t say for sure. I’m doin’ okay, I just don’t know what all this is about, if you need me to sign something or give blood I’ll do that, just let me get on–”
“I don’t think that’s what we need from you today, Gainers,” she said firmly, drawing his attention back. “We’ve taken a lot of blood and had you sign a lot of forms. But you’re still just as sick as you’ve ever been, and before long your liver is going to give out again and you’ll be sicker.”
“I thought you said that scare tactics don’t work,” interjected Dr. Bode.
“There is a difference between scaring someone and setting the appropriate tone for conversation,” replied Dr. Chambliss without breaking her gaze on Gainers.
“I don’t want my liver to give out again,” said Gainers quickly. “No ma’am.”
“Well, what are you willing to do to make sure it doesn’t happen?” asked Dr. Chambliss.
Gainers was surprised by the question. He watched a smirk rise from Dr. Bode’s lips.
“That, uh… that’s a good question,” mumbled Gainers. “I’ll take my medicine.”
“You’ve promised Dr. Bode that in the past, and it hasn’t worked out.” Rita’s tone was clear and firm, cutting through the excuses that Gainers was trying to form in his mind before he even had the chance to speak them. He found the experience terrifying but also relieving; he was quite used to being condescended to but not to being engaged so forthrightly.
“Yeah, I guess so.” He shrugged as he spoke.
“So what could make it different in the future? What are the barriers to taking your medicine?”
“What do you mean, barriers?” Gainers was fairly certain that he knew what she meant, but decided to ask her to clarify so that he might have a few more seconds to search for an answer.
“Things that prevent you from taking your medicine like you’re supposed to. Side effects. Cost. Not understanding the directions.”
“Oh, yeah. Well, all of that.”
“Gainers, why did you stop taking your medicine?”
“Too much money.”
“No, the free medicine. The one that Dr. Bode gave you.”
Gainers pondered for a minute, stroking the stubble on his chin with his finger. “I can’t say. I have a hard time, uh, pullin’ it all together when I don’t take my other medicine, the one that’s too expensive.”
“So your other medicine was too expensive. But why didn’t you tell Dr. Bode?”
“I figured that Dr. Bode was just my liver doctor. Didn’t care nothin’ for my brain. That’s what my psy-chiatrist was for.” He threw all of his emphasis on the first syllable of the word with a high, gentle drawl.
“I… do care about your brain, Gainers,” said Dr. Bode slowly drawing out the words. “I… care about your whole person.”
Dr. Chambliss looked over at Dr. Bode, half stunned and half giddy. Ever since Gainers had sat down in the office, he had been trying to determine what their relationship was and why she was here in his office on a Saturday. The look on her face at the moment made him strongly suspect some sort of romantic entanglement; however, if that was the case then it made no sense that he, too, was entangled with them. As badly as he wanted to be away from this place and back at the crab shack, he felt a strange draw towards them, even through Solomon’s half-hearted rhetoric.
“I appreciate that, Dr. Bode,” he finally said.
“So… what does your whole person need, Gainers?” asked Dr. Bode.
“A roof over my head and a meal on my plate.”
“Weren’t you getting that from your sister?” An angry edge seeped into Dr. Bode’s tone, as Gainers had seen before, usually in regards to his alcohol intake. He hesitated for a second.
“I… needed to be alone.”
“Because you weren’t taking your medicine.”
“And your sister couldn’t afford it?”
“And the rest of the time?”
“I took it when I could. Don’t feel no good to be so flat all the damn time.”
“Noncompliance,” muttered Solomon.
Gainers had heard that word a number of times, usually in regards to himself but occasionally directed at his sister or his friends. It was usually brought out after someone had figured out that Gainers wasn’t doing as he had been told and usually had about as much power to affect his intentions as a billboard telling him to quit smoking. But now, in this context, with everyone gathered around him, he felt it sting a little deeper.
“It was just so hard after Jessi had her heart attack and went to rehab,” he said. “I… I had no idea what was happenin’ to her, I was goin’ down to the hospital every day to see her, they was always testing something and we were so scared. Jesus Christ. I didn’t know if she was gonna live.”
Dr. Chambliss jumped back in. “So that’s when things started falling apart for you, huh?”
“You could say that,” murmured Gainers. “Didn’t help that I done lost my disability check the week before on account of me workin’ too much or some crazy shit like that. Didn’t even know there was such a thing.”
“God damn,” muttered Dr. Bode. “This fucking system.”
Dr. Chambliss merely raised her eyebrows.
“Are y’all done yet?” asked Gainers. Neither his hands nor his feet could not stop folding over each other with nervous energy.
“We’re… done if you want to be, Gainers,” said Dr. Chambliss. “I think that Dr. Bode still wants you to keep taking the medication, but it’s up to you whether you do or not.”
“Well,” said Gainers, taking a deep breath, “I can’t say any doctor has ever told me that it’s up to me, so I appreciate you sayin’ that.”
Gainers slowly rose from his chair and shook the hands of Dr. Bode, Dr. Chambliss, Hannah, and Adam. “You have been awfully kind to bring me here on a weekend.”
“Are you going to take the pills?” growled Dr. Bode, pronouncing each word thoroughly with a slight pause afterwards. Gainers shuddered for a second as Dr. Chambliss’ hand shot out in front of him to grab Dr. Bode’s leg. He could not tell if she was pinching or slapping him, but he responded with a exclamation of pain followed by a change in countenance that Gainers could not interpret. His mouth was pursed with tension, as if he had not quite said everything that he had wanted to say to Gainers, but his eyes still looked intently ahead as they always did when he was trying to make Gainers feel at ease.
Dr. Bode finally spoke. “We look forward to working with you again.”
“Gainers, we can give you the pills now if you’re ready for them, but you can always call or stop by otherwise.”
“I-I’ll be all right for now,” said Gainers timidly, slipping through the chairs that Hannah and Adam were sitting in to reach the other end of the conference room. “Y’all have a blessed day now, y’hear?”
With that, he waved goodbye and quickly stepped out into the hallway. He thought that he could hear a voice yelling, “You lose!” behind him, but could not tell if it was Dr. Bode or merely the usual chatter of his own voices.
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Trousseau Syndrome by Matthew Loftus is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.