The opening pages of Fortnight on Maxwell Street:


To the clatter and whack of tire chains and wiper blades, Doctor Butler steered her red Buick Roadmaster down the crunchy black tracks of an otherwise snowbound side street. The buildings left and right were a monotony of weathered three and six flats, slumlorded brick tenements that were once the fine apartments of thriving immigrant families, long since gone to their preferred neighborhoods and suburbs.

Nick Weissman was in the back seat wedged between Mary the midwife and Carla the nursing student. His classmate Jeff Peerce was riding shotgun. Nick asked, “What about our orientation?”

Butler told him not to worry, that they’d finish it later. She sounded New England, though she’d been working out of the Near West Side of Chicago for almost half a century, delivering babies in buildings you wouldn’t walk into if you had a choice, which these two senior medical students did not. “When we get up there, don’t touch anything,” she said. “Just watch me and Mary. You’ll get plenty, believe me.” She cracked the window and lit her third Chesterfield in twenty minutes. Nick got the March morning air like a scalpel, then the sweet sulfur of the matchhead, then the smoke. Those who could—and Nick and Jeff certainly could not—called her Butts.

Out of the car, the two young men each carried a black leather instrument bag the size of a small suitcase. Carla shlepped a foot-high pile of newspapers, while Butler and Mary, the pros, walked ahead unencumbered. Butler’s stride and bearing were all business, her bright red go-go boots a snappy non-sequitur.

“C’mon, c’mon,” Butler said, herding them through a front door into a barely warmer lobby of mailboxes and buzzers. The tile floor was filthy, sticky. Of the six doorbells, not one was labelled. Butler was about to try one when a boy, he looked about eight, appeared at the top of the first flight of stairs.

“You from the maternity?”

“That’s right, son,” Butler said.

He waved them up and led their little caravan into the dark.

Nick thought about his Jewish mother, her fierce protectiveness and portfolio of prohibitions. If she knew where her twenty-four year-old son was at that moment, she’d have probably asked if he was trying to kill her.

Butler told them to try not to breathe. It was too late for Nick. His stomach roiled with the reek, a melange of urine and feces and rotting garbage that saturated the stairwell. At the top landing, Butler was shooing them into an apartment like a basketball coach, her left arm extended and pointing into the open doorway, her right windmilling. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.”

Inside, the flat was a surprise. There was the aroma of baking, an olfactory antidote, Nick figured, for the stench of the building. And there was the smell of Lysol. They were in the living room amid old but serviceable upholstered chairs, needlepoint pillows and walnut tables covered with white tatting. There was a black spinet overflowing with sheet music. The floor was polished oak, and all four walls were covered with family photographs. The place was a home.

They were welcomed by a calm and gracious dark-skinned woman, young enough to be the mother-to-be. She had a big afro and wore black horn-rimmed glasses. “Willa, my daughter, she’s in the bedroom.” She told them that Willa’s pains were five minutes apart and that her water had just broken. Then she offered them coffee and pastry.

“Miss Brown, is it?” Butler asked.

“Yes, May Brown.”

“Well, thank you for your hospitality, but right now I think we’d best get to evaluating Willa. Is that the bedroom?”

Butler led them in. The small room was crammed with their crew of five, mother May, two mid-twentyish women who referred to themselves as the ahnties, and Willa, looking every bit her fifteen years. From a single bed in the corner, she looked up at Butler.

“Are you gonna help me?”

Butler told her that she would, that they would.

“Would you cover my feet?” Willa asked.

She re-positioned the girl’s baby blue polyester blanket, squaring it to the foot of the bed and across the teenager’s chest.

The queasiness in Nick’s gut was gone, replaced by the itch of apprehension. Protected and supervised, for the time being he was not in jeopardy. But he knew that soon enough he would be in a place like this or much worse, on his own.

Willa whimpered and said, “Help me.” She had a flattened hook nose, bulgy brown eyes, and acne dotting her café-au-lait skin. Her hair, bunched into short and disorderly rubberbanded braids, was oiled.

“What’s your name again?” Butler said, looking at Nick. He told her for the third time in as many hours.

“Well, Weissman, we’re going to examine this girl. Come over here and help get her into position.” Then she retrieved Jeff’s identity and assigned him to the opposite side. Nick and his fellow student, a millimeter from doctorhood, survivors of the brain-stuffing, sleep-depriving, debt-encumbering eight year pre-med and medical school marathon, were now going to be stirrups.

As they slid her buttocks to the bottom edge of the bed, Willa was exposed from the ribcage down. Her abdomen bulged in the shape of a watermelon from her breast bone to just above her genitals, the taut skin shiny and bisected by a brown-black line of pigment—the linea nigra, Nick remembered—running top to bottom.

He looked across at his colleague. Like Jeff, he had one hand under a thigh, flexing the knee and pulling it toward his chest. They had Willa splayed, ready for Butler’s lubricated glove.

Suddenly Nick swallowed a laugh and was not at all certain he’d be able to contain the next. In this first clinical adventure with Doctor Teresa Butler, the Medical Director of the Chicago Maternity Center, a cackling outburst would have been about as welcome as booming flatulence. Still, looking at Jeff, he could not get the image out of his head. Though it had happened over three years earlier, it remained a contender for the most macabre and hilarious of medical school moments, no small distinction considering the collective comedic guilty pleasures of the Northwestern University Class of 1968. Jocular sublimation, anxiety cum merriment, a gallows doozy. He feared he would snort….