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The Third Story

issue 38 2020 Prize Winners

Rebecca Wurtz

Paul followed the older man up the ladder to the roof, gripping the wooden crate in his left hand while using his right to grab the rungs. Paul liked visiting Ambrose on his private tar beach amid the late summer treetops, just the two men, the ramshackle coop, and a hundred fluttering birds. Ambrose had explained his purpose four years earlier on the Sunday after church when he’d first invited Paul up. “I’m helpin’ with the war effort, trainin’ these birds to be carrier pigeons and spies.”

The older man caused a ruckus by reaching his big hands in the front door of the coop, smoothly grabbing a medium-size gray and emerald bird from behind. He held it up for Paul to see.

“This one okay?”

“Now Ambrose, don’t be givin’ me your best bird.” Paul was aware he commenced to talking downhome when he spent time with Ambrose.

“This ain’t my best one, not by a long shot. Here, open up that box.”

The men climbed back down, the bird scratching and chirruping in the crate. They left it on the porch while they talked at the kitchen table as Lillian, Ambrose’s wife, served them coffee and cake. Ambrose had worked as a porter for Union Pacific, and now that the war was over reckoned there’d be more work, civilians taking business trips and vacations. Lillian asked after Miriam and the boys. Paul talked about the upcoming school year at the university.

“This’ll be my last time teachin’ for a while. I don’t have to teach again for a year.” The accelerated, year-round schedule that the medical school followed during the war was now being phased out. This would be Paul’s last quarter of teaching Introductory Pharmacology after twelve straight quarters—three years of the unremitting tedium of preparing lectures and grading problem sets. He was eager to spend more time in his laboratory. His temperament was more suited to the solitary pursuit of truth through science than it was to the daily showmanship of lecturing to one hundred and fifty young medics.

“I best be getting home, but I thank you, Miss Lillian, for the fine cake, and Ambrose for the bird.”

“You come back soon, Professor, and you take all them birds away, you hear? Ambrose done run out of excuses for their noise and mess. One at a time is jus’ too slow!”

“Yes, ma’am.” Paul grinned at Ambrose.

Although he might have ridden the streetcar home, Paul chose to walk. He wanted to think over the past week. He carried the crate first in his left hand, then in his right, swinging it lightly to calm the bird.

The war had given him opportunities. His rheumatic heart kept him at home, which was fine by him. Paul was as patriotic as the next man, but he’d been forlorn at the prospect of leaving his agreeable position at the university for a military hospital laboratory where he would have to prove himself to every orderly. He’d inherited several research projects from mobilized colleagues and was about to submit a manuscript based on one to the American Journal of Pharmacology. Miriam had finished typing the final version last evening.

The department chairman, also unfit for military service, had come to treat him with an easy familiarity, referring to him by his first name and clapping his shoulder when they met in the corridor. Paul had analyzed Dr. Ogden’s behavior the way he might analyze a chemical precipitate: he separated, identified, and quantified. Was the chair being collegial or condescending? Condescending, Paul had concluded, because he was only a lecturer, and colored, and at home when others were at war. Did Dr. Ogden have an agenda, or was his affability simple laziness? In Paul’s experience, department chairmen always had an agenda, but Dr. Ogden’s had been obscure until last Monday, when the chairman had called him to his office to tell him that, with two new professors arriving in a few weeks, Paul would have to vacate the third-floor laboratory that had been his professional home for almost ten years. Paul would be relocated to a lab on the fifth floor, under a low sloping roof, with less than a quarter of the bench space.

“Surely you agree, Paul, that these young fellows need a secure job and a bench to come back to, our gratitude for serving their country.”

Paul once thought that the talent and ambition that had propelled him into graduate school as the first Negro PhD in pharmacology at the University of Maryland would keep propelling him, perhaps into a chairmanship at a prestigious Negro university. But life and history took over and the channel in which his tiny boat had floated so effortlessly began to silt in. In the middle of the Depression, his dissertation advisor had to pressure a colleague at a large midwestern university to secure a job for Paul as a research associate—not even a faculty position. He’d married Miriam on the day after graduation, and for their honeymoon, they traveled on the train to their new home in Chicago.

Under Dr. Ogden’s direction, the university’s pharmacology program was mired in the obsolete methods of the teens and twenties, and Paul had been disappointed by the old-fashioned thinking, the poor equipment, the inability to attract top-level graduate students. And now, the window of opportunity opened by the war, such as it was, had closed. Paul and Mrs. Cherry, the laboratory manager, had spent the better part of last week boxing research records and equipment, labeling them for the movers.

As Paul walked home with the bird, he recognized a heaviness in his chest, the combined effects of his heart defect and the impending move from the third to the fifth floor. He rested on the twilit sidewalk in front of his building, looking up at the lighted windows of his apartment before climbing the back stairs, depositing the crate on the back porch, and letting himself into the kitchen.

He looked in the front room, where Miriam, Clifton, and Kenneth sat on the couch in a yellow pool of lamplight, their heads bent over a picture book of Robin Hood while Miriam read. She glanced at him and smiled, but his sons didn’t look up. Paul was proud of his sons but his relationship with them was a little distant. On occasion, Paul had heard Miriam admonishing them. “Your father is a busy man, an important man. Don’t disturb him when he’s working.” Once, to his sadness, he’d overheard her say, “No misbehaving around your father. His heart couldn’t take it.” He ate the supper she had left under a napkin on the counter and then settled at his desk in the study to proofread his manuscript.

In the morning, Paul got up before his family, shaved, and wiped under his arms with a washrag. He made himself coffee and toasted a piece of bread on the gas ring. Miriam and the children slowly stirred; they hadn’t gotten back into the fall school rhythm of early rising. When they were dressed, Miriam would walk them around the corner to the elementary school. He pictured them sitting in the neat rows at school, hands folded, obedient, absorbing knowledge.

The bird had spent the night on the porch. Paul eyed it through the slats. It did not appear to have partaken of the water or cracked corn that he left in a dish. In fact, it appeared to accept its confinement with equanimity.

Paul asked a sleepy Clifton, still in his pajamas, to help by lifting the crate’s lid. Using Ambrose’s strategy of moving in from behind, Paul closed the bird in his hands and transferred it to a brown grocery bag he had lined with old newspaper.

“What you gonna do with this bird, Pa?”

“He’s going to help me at the university, teaching those medical men.” Paul gathered up his lecture notes, the small brown bag with his lunch, and the bigger brown bag with the bird.

“Don’t you go confusing them now,” Miriam said with a smile. “If you come home with feathers round your mouth, I’ll know you used your sandwich to teach the students.”

He kissed her lightly on the forehead, told the boys to pay attention in school, and headed down the front stairs to the street.

Mrs. Johnson swept the front walk. “Morning, Professor!”

On the streetcar, a heavy woman sitting next to him shifted in her seat as the big brown bag made scratching sounds and wobbled on his lap.

“Kitten,” said Paul.
“Say what?”
“It’s a kitten, I’m taking it to my niece.”
“Oh. That’s nice.” The woman nodded at Paul and turned to look out

the window.
In the lab, Paul stowed the paper bag under the bench. Mrs. Cherry

waved at him from the other end of the room and he waved back. The fact that the only colored laboratory manager had been assigned to the only colored researcher struggled briefly to the surface of Paul’s thoughts, as it did almost every morning, before he submerged it again.

There was a good hour to weigh and bleed a dozen rabbits before he had to leave for the lecture hall. He picked the first one up by the scruff of its neck and carried it to the scale, methodically noted its weight and condition in the ledger. He calmed the doe momentarily before flipping it and expertly pinning it down, using his left hand to splay the hind legs while his right hand guided a hypodermic needle into the femoral vein to gather a blood sample.

He was absorbed in his work and content. He felt most at home here, amid the glassware, Bunsen burners, and heavy soapstone countertops. Every so often, the bird scratching in its paper bag would pull his mind to the impending move to the fifth floor, but his work would pull him back, until he finished with the last rabbit, closed the notebook, and placed the corked glass tubes in the centrifuge.

Mrs. Cherry brought over a needle book and an enamel basin with a metal syringe and its plunger lying in it, side by side on a blue surgical towel.

“Professor, I sharpened the needle and sterilized the syringe.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Cherry, it looks real good.” There was that downhome language coming out. “Very good.”

“You know the movers are coming today. I’ll finish up here—” she gestured to his bench “—when you go to lecture.”

“Yes, ma’am. Thanks for all of your hard work boxing everything up.”

Paul fitted the needle into the metal hub on the syringe and rotated it to lock it into place. Then he introduced the glass plunger into the barrel and deliberately worked it up and down, making sure its action was smooth. From his top desk drawer, he pulled out a ring of keys. In the supply room, the white metal medicinal cabinet sat askew on its slender curved legs, giving it the appearance of a formally dressed but slightly tipsy aunt. Paul unlocked its glass door and removed an amber- colored bottle, the one labeled with a skull and crossbones, almost empty now after repeated quarters of classroom use. He carefully drew up a scant milliliter of clear liquid into the syringe, then put the syringe in the metal kidney basin and put the towel over it.

“Mrs. Cherry,” he called. “I’m heading down to the lecture hall.” He gathered up the brown paper bag, the basin and syringe, and his lecture notes. He didn’t know if she heard him—she was going over the packing inventory with two burly men in coveralls.

Paul arrived at the old amphitheater ten minutes before his class began. The room had once been used by surgical prosectors to demonstrate anatomical lectures, and the domed skylight still provided plenty of light at the front of the hall. In his Palmerian script, he wrote out the name of the textbook and the first week’s assignments on the blackboard. He drew the peculiar structure of the cyano group, a single carbon atom triple bonded to a single nitrogen. His back was to the room as students began to filter in. When he turned to face them, he saw what he expected. An amphitheater full of boys, some in khaki uniforms, some just twenty years old. No colored faces. Two young ladies, only, sitting together on the left side. The last few years had seen a growing number of female students, but now that the war was over the seats they had captured would be taken back by men, by returning soldiers.

Rapping his knuckles on the podium, he waited until the room quieted. He knew that he presented a sight, a Negro professor of pharmacology, and knew from experience that with each new group of students, he had to take control of the material in these first few minutes, in order to impress upon them that a colored man could be a scientist and a teacher.

“This is introductory pharmacology, gentlemen. And ladies. I am Dr. Paul Washington, of the University’s Department of Pharmacology. We will be using Goodman and Gilman as our textbook and will follow its organization. Please note the initial assignment on the board to your right. Problem sets are due at the beginning of class. The first quiz is next Thursday, and we will have quizzes on a weekly basis thereafter.”

Paul stood at the front of the classroom, pointedly waiting for rude latecomers to settle down, before continuing.

“Pharmacology is the study of the uses and effects of drugs in the human body. You have studied chemistry, physiology, and anatomy. Now it is time to put them all together.” A few faces looked up from their notebooks, interested. “You will be learning how a drug acts, how it is changed by and excreted from the body.”

As he talked, Paul ranged up and down in front of the students. He knew how to pace the lecture, how to drive important points home. He did not much value teaching, the regurgitation of old knowledge instead of the creation of new, but it came easily to him.

“You will learn the narrow margin between benefit and harm. In practice, you may hurt as many people as you help with a medication. Indeed, you will kill some patients with the very medicine with which you seek to cure them.”

Paul saw some of the boys smirk to their companions. Doctors, especially young ones, had little insight into the damage they would cause. He walked behind the lectern, lifted the paper bag and extracted the bird. Gripping it lightly in his left hand, he held it up for the students to see. Under his thumb, he could feel the bird’s pulse, and marveled—as he did with each bird—at its passivity.

“Let this bird represent your patient. As a demonstration, I will inject the compound whose simple formula—two elements only—that you see written on the blackboard.”

With his right hand, Paul pulled the towel off the basin, took up the heavy glass syringe, and slipped his first and second fingers through the rings on the barrel.

“Carbon and nitrogen, essential to life. Carbon, found in every cell in our bodies, and nitrogen, which makes up three-quarters of every breath we take.” While he spoke, Paul firmly and tenderly pressed the glinting needle into the pigeon’s iridescent breast, and with his thumb on the plunger, injected the syringe’s contents directly into its heart. The bird shuddered slightly, but Paul’s hand restrained and soothed it. He withdrew the needle as smoothly as an exhalation, paused for a moment, then tossed the bird up, gently, into the vault of the lecture hall.

Instantly, the gray-green bird took flight. It beat its wings once, twice, seeking the light at the top of the room. When it sensed the glass between it and the sky, it wheeled, then halted abruptly in mid-air. As though stuck by a fist, it crashed to the middle aisle’s steps, where it twitched once and was still. A boy sitting on the aisle shrieked in fright. Students at the back and far side of the amphitheater stood up and craned their necks, then turned their eyes to their instructor.

Paul mounted the steps slowly and retrieved the bird. The body was soft and warm as he gently stowed it in the paper bag.

“Together, carbon and nitrogen form cyanide, a compound that permanently uncouples cellular respiration and cellular function. Uncouples the animus from the corpus.” He had hoped, as he did at the beginning of each semester, that this time pharmacology would prove untrue, that finally one bird would circle the amphitheater and soar through the skylight to wing its way back to Ambrose’s rooftop, to coo and putter with its fellows in the dappled shade. “A drug introduced into the circulation—of a bird or of a person—reaches every organ in the body in one heartbeat, every cell in two. It can fulfill your therapeutic intention—or kill—in seconds.

“That is the power of pharmacology, gentlemen, and ladies. The power and the poison.”

The rest of the lecture was far more prosaic: how to calculate the volume of distribution, the pharmacologic differences between adipose and muscle. No further smirks, no whispered conversations at the back of the room. He reviewed the problem set due on Friday before wearily dismissing the class. When they left the lecture hall, students skirted around the spot on the stairs where the bird had fallen. No one stayed behind to ask urgent and esoteric questions; they never did after the first class.

Paul gathered his papers, the demonstration supplies, and the bag containing the body of the bird. Lost in thought, he rode the clanking elevator to the third floor. He had to pause in the sepia-colored corridor to catch his breath. Sometimes his heart skipped a few beats, but the episodes usually passed quickly. When he pulled open the door of his lab, he was startled to find the room dark and cold, stripped, the stone bench tops bare. He considered the emptied room for half a minute, then placed the bag on the counter, and headed back to take the elevator to the fifth floor.