The Index Case - Chapter 12

Maddy only had about fifteen minutes alone in Shirley’s office to do what the National Institutes of Health clerk had asked of her....

The Index Case - Chapter 12

Maddy only had about fifteen minutes alone in Shirley’s office to do what the National Institutes of Health clerk had asked of her. Shirley would then be back to ask Maddy if she had collected her thoughts and was ready to give the talk upstairs. Maddy didn’t want to be in the middle of the fax to the NIH clerk at that point. It would just be awkward to be discovered by Shirley to be snooping around the unpublished work of a prominent physician who had not only arranged the relatively prestigious talk that Maddy was about to deliver but who was going to give Maddy and Shirley dinner at his home afterwards.

The NIH Freedom of Information Act clerk had received Maddy’s request and then emailed Maddy to ask her to call him. He revealed in his email only that there appeared to be a small problem with her FOIA request. But what problem could there have been? Her request had been so short and straightforward.

As soon as Shirley had left Maddy alone, Maddy had shut the door and used Shirley’s phone to call him, hoping he would still be there this late in the day. When he answered and she told him who she was, he explained to Maddy that she had indicated in her written request that she had wanted all of Dr. Wilhelm’s annual grant reports from January 1, 1864, forward. The request had been assigned to him, and he was thinking she meant 1964 forward? Or did she mean some other date?

“Oh, gosh, yes,” Maddy answered. “I’m sorry, I’m usually in the nineteenth century. I meant 1964 forward.”

“No problem,” the clerk answered, “if you can just fax me over an addendum indicating the correction.”

He gave her the fax number and confirmed the street address where she wanted the materials sent to her.

“I should address it in care of John Wolf?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said. “That’s my landlord.”

“It’s so funny,” he said. “I used to live right in that neighborhood. On Waverly Street. I can’t quite picture the house you’re in.”

“It’s just a classic brick rowhouse. Nothing memorable. I’ll bet the area hasn’t changed much.”

“Probably not. That part of Philly doesn’t change. Except for the cracks in the sidewalks getting bigger. And some of the houses getting a little nicer and some getting a little more down in the tooth, I guess. Listen, do you want all of the addendums to all of his grant reports – all the published papers attached and the c.v. copies and all that? A lot of it is likely to be duplicative and there will be a ton. I don’t get to decide what to send you, exactly...but you also didn’t specify if you wanted the main reports or the whole packet for each – like I said, there will be a ton of duplication of material you’re probably not interested in. And I can get it to you faster if you don’t need everything. And there’s less likely to be a charge.”

Maddy wondered if she could just tell him what she wanted. The rule in the field of history, she had long ago learned, was to always treat a librarian or an archivist like one’s therapist – just get to the point of why you’re there.

“Are we supposed to play cat-and-mouse?” she asked the clerk. “Would that mark me as a pro in this game? Or can I please just tell you what I’m looking for?”

“Sure, you can tell me,” he said. “We don’t usually keep an eye out for specific content you’re seeking. We’re just supposed to follow your request the way it’s written. But if you tell me, I suppose I can scan the attachments to the main report, and if I see something relevant then I’ll attach the whole package.”

She explained that she was interested in the history of Dr. Wilhelm’s specimens – anything about the people they had come from, what he had learned from those in particular, how he spoke of them. She said she was doing comparative history, this series of specimens collected by Dr. Wilhelm and practices of his predecessors a hundred years earlier (not a total lie?) and that she didn’t need his published papers because she had easy access to those. He asked her a little more and told her the subject sounded interesting.

“To be honest,” he added, “I try to look up what eventually happens with various FOIA requests I answer. I like to see what people – scholars and journalists and whoever – have done with the material I send them. Makes one feel like one’s job is not a total waste of time and taxpayer expense. Although so many requests I answer never seem to come to anything.... Anyway, just fax me the correction and I’ll be working on this request next, right after I send another one out tomorrow morning. Yours shouldn’t take too long. Pretty straightforward and there won’t be much if anything that needs redacting, I expect.”

She hung up and thought about how to make sure in her haste that she did this version of her request exactly right. She had left in her possession only three sheets of her university’s departmental letterhead from Indiana because she had brought only four in total with her to Philly. (Her standard list of what to bring on a research trip included a couple of sheets of letterhead, just in case.) She could always ask the departmental secretary in Indiana to send more but that would take a week, and she might have to explain what she was doing with it all.

She did a test run of her request addendum on plain paper on Shirley’s printer and then, seeing that it looked okay, she printed it out on letterhead. She signed it and sent it off using Shirley’s fax machine. As soon as the machine seemed to be done with the transmission, she called the clerk back to confirm its delivery. He said it looked good.

She hung up the phone just before Shirley walked back in.

“Ready?” asked Shirley.

“Yes, indeed,” said Maddy, using her fingers to check the integrity of the bun of hair on her head. “Ready.”

She couldn’t stop thinking about what the FOIA response might show. She shouldn’t be spending time on this tangent – it was so important to stay focused entirely on the dissertation at this point. That’s where other people went wrong and ended up never finishing their PhD’s. Tangents (professional or personal) could lead to delays, which could lead to funding running out, which could lead to having to get a job that made it impossible to have the time and energy to finish. Some people just didn’t realize how important it was to stay so completely focused, to work at least a little every day until it was done. Finishing her Ph.D. meant holding everything together just so, like the bun on her head.

“For the translation of this next text from Polish to English, I am indebted to Officer Wesley Larsen,” Maddy told the audience. “So, if I get any major organs wrong here, please blame the Philadelphia Police Department, not me.”

A chuckle went through the room as Maddy advanced to the next slide. The mention of his name roused Wes from the thoughts he’d been having, which were only sort of connected to the content of Maddy’s presentation. If he was honest with himself, he was mostly thinking about how hot Maddy looked in this conservative-librarian get-up, her hair pulled up, just a few strands hanging down, curling at the ends near her jawline. All she was missing was a pair of cat-eye glasses on a rhinestone chain or something.

As Maddy walked a few steps to and fro at the front of the museum’s small auditorium, continuing her lecture, her calves looked to him so good in those heels – feminine and strong, obviously the legs of a woman who was runner – and, he knew from their conversation, the legs of a gymnast, too. She had asked him about the gym Wolf had been taking her to, whether Wes could take her to the same place if Wolf wasn’t free, so she could do gymnastics.

Wes glanced over at Wolf, seated next to him. He couldn’t figure out why Wolf was looking more and more intense, the way he looked when he was working step by step through a case that bothered him. What was up with that? Maddy was doing a fine job from what Wes could tell – so it could not be that Wolf was worried that she was bombing. She seemed to have the audience of doctors in the palm of her hand, to be delivering her material with confidence.

Wes was glad that he and Wolf had taken Maddy up on the offer to get them into this presentation so Wes could see what she did with the text he had translated for her. He had been very curious to see whether other people would be interested in what she was interested in. These people did seem to be.

Maddy had asked Wes at Wolf’s birthday party if he’d help her translate something from Polish and when he said sure, she pulled him into a corner of the living room to show him the photocopies. She said Father Tad thought it’d be better that Wes do it.

As soon as Wes started reading it, he cracked up and told her it wasn’t the kind of thing you’d ask a priest to translate, now, was it?

Wes told her he wasn’t sure about a few of the – uh, medical terms – and at that Maddy disappeared quickly upstairs and came back with a thick Polish-English dictionary and told him she’d just look up with him what he wasn’t sure about. She said Father Tad had lent the dictionary to her.

When he told her to look up one word and it turned out to be mean uterine cervix, she asked him if he didn’t know what a cervix was, and he said, blushing, he just didn’t know the word in Polish.

“Have you not had sex in Polish?” she asked, laughing at him and taking another swig from her bottle of beer.

“I had it in Polish once,” he admitted to her, taking a drink from his own, “with a Polish girl my mother wanted me to marry. But this here, this was not a word I needed to get the job done. I’m not saying I don’t know what it is – I just didn’t need to name it in Polish right then, at that time, at that particular moment.”

He could not believe he just told her that, but it made her smile and laugh.

Wes asked Maddy why the woman being described in the article didn’t have a uterine cervix, and Maddy explained that if you didn’t form a uterus – which girls don’t if they have this condition – then you didn’t form a cervix.

“Can’t have a fingernail without a fingertip,” she said plainly. Although then she cocked her head and held a finger to her lips like she was thinking maybe in fact you could.

Wes kept translating aloud, getting to where the author, still describing the absence of the cervix, described the woman’s vagina as being like a sock – simply ending at the top rather than leading to a uterus.

“So, you know the Polish words for vagina and sock,” Maddy nodded at him, amused. “Those you know.”

“Now, vagina and sock, those sometimes do go together,” he answered. “But I myself prefer a vagina without a sock.”

“Who doesn’t?” she asked, laughing out loud.

He had had to put his head down for a second not to appear like a fool from the look on his face. That just made her laugh at him more and poke him on the elbow.

“You’re very pretty,” he said, looking up at her. (He had learned this was a good thing to say, especially if a girl might believe him.)

Maddy shook her head at him side to side and rolled her eyes a little, like he was hopeless. But she was still smiling.

When he got to the part in the old medical journal article about the woman not having any hair in her armpits or her pubic region, he paused from his on-the-fly verbal translation and looked up from the paper to Maddy’s face.

“Yes,” she said, anticipating his question. “I do have hair there.”

“That’s fine,” he said. “I mean, that’s cool.”

“And it grew there on its own,” she explained further. “I don’t have a merkin.”

“What’s a merkin?”

“A pubic-hair wig,” she explained.

“Get outta here! Those exist? That’s a real thing? An actual thing?”

“Yup,” she said. “Believe it or not, fashions keep changing about what people like down there, on women anyway. It’s all kind of stupid, if you ask me. A natural body is nice no matter how it comes, right?”

And here he was trying to formulate a joke to highlight what she had just said, but before he had the chance to, she realized what she had just said and started giggling, a little like a kid.

“Um, that’s not exactly what I meant to say!”

“Uh huh,” he said. “Well, I was just going to agree with you. Your observation seems to me correct. Quite correct.”

At the end of the party, Wolf was supposed to give Wes a ride home in Wes’s car because Wolf needed to borrow Wes’s car while his own was stuck in the shop waiting for the mechanic to install some part he had ordered. But after working on the translation together, Wes and Maddy decided to convince Wolf to let Maddy give Wes the ride home. She could bring Wes’s car back to Wolf. Maddy told Wolf she was happy to do it and added that if she didn’t drive now and then, especially in a real city, she’d lose the hang of what Liz had taught her when Liz helped her get her license.

When they got to Wes’s place, several miles away, it was dark out. He said he’d invite her in except his mother was probably already in her nightgown. He asked her if she felt confident about the way back and she said yes, she’d been watching carefully on the way over.

“You know which streets are the one-ways near Wolf’s?” he asked.

“I can figure it out,” she said. “There are probably signs that say ‘one way,’ right?”

“There are. We point them out to people when we pull them over for going the wrong way.”

Then there was that pause. And then there was that kiss he put on her cheek. When he brushed the tip of his nose against her cheekbone as he pulled away, she let out a little sigh that sent all the blood in his head to his groin.

“Thank you,” was all she said.

“Happy to serve,” he answered.

The skin of her cheek had been as soft as baby hair.

Now, remembering all that, listening to her go on about another specimen in the museum’s collection – What the hell? A seven-month fetus with two heads, did she say? – he was having the same problem with his blood being redirected.

Well, maybe she would call him later for a ride home from the doctor’s house after the dinner as she had asked Wes if she could. She wasn’t sure how she was getting back home otherwise, she said. Maybe then....

Wes looked again at Wolf. His brow just kept furrowing harder. But Wes knew better than to ask Wolf later why this was. Wolf never wanted to explain anything in a line of thinking until he caught something and was ready to pull his line out of the water. Asking him what he was thinking just got you the brush-off, or worse, a sort of short verbal smack across your lips. No thanks.

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