The young lady entered the laboratory with her eyes cast down reverently, as though entering a church. When she reached the gurney, she pulled a chair close to it and placed the things she was carrying on a nearby table. She removed the sheet covering the body and began washing the dirt from the face and hands.
“Good evening, Mr. Doe,” she said cheerfully, shaking her blond curls from her face.
“Today was my first day at the Chicago World’s Fair. It is the biggest event of 1893." She laughed. "You should have seen the big dome in the Administration building…I almost fell over looking up at it,”
She reached over and gently closed the eyes with her thumb and index finger. She asked God to bless the bottle of nard oil in her hands. She put some on her right thumb and anointed Mr. Doe’s forehead, lips and breast. She then placed some on the tips of her fingers and rubbed oil on the hands and feet.
“I celebrate the goodness of your life, Mr. Doe, and pray you find peace.”
She then folded her hands and sat silently watching over the body as a sign of respect, or, as her grandmother would say, “to keep away the evil spirits.”
Mary Ballard had been tending to these bodies since her employer, Dr. Randall Holmes, asked her to unlock the laboratory after hours to allow personnel to collect the cadavers.
“Medical schools are in desperate need of bodies these days to train future doctors,” Dr. Holmes explained. “I have agreed to send them as many as I can find.”
She had been working as his secretary since the beginning of the year, having moved from her home in Amherst, Ohio, seeking adventure and a new life in the big city. Her apartment was in the same building as the office and laboratory, and she had no problem complying with the good doctor’s request.
Tending to the bodies was not Dr. Holmes’ idea. Mary decided that on her own, after remembering her grandmother’s stories of how the women in the community took care of the dead before men became undertakers and commercialized the process. She tried to be as personal with them as she could, but these were unattached people, drifters without families, women committed to institutions and long forgotten. The paperwork that accompanied each body listed the name as either “John or Jane Doe.”
Good enough, Mary thought to herself. Then that shall be their names.
To one Mr. Doe she continued her review of the fair, “Today, I saw a map of the U.S. made of pickles and a Liberty Bell made of oranges…There was even a 22,000-pound muenster cheese!”
And to a Miss Doe who had never had a friend in her life, she shared, “I ate a hamburger today at the fair and drank a carbonated soda…it made my nose tickle… And at the ‘Street in Cairo’ a lady did a belly dance called the ‘hootchey-cootchey.’ This is what it looked like.” She jumped up, lifted her skirt above her ankles and began to move her hips in a circular motion. Her face contorted with the all-too-mechanical effort until she collapsed in her chair laughing. “Well, something like that.” She leaned closer to the body. “Don’t give me away…that wasn’t very lady-like.”
The years passed, and Mary continued her anointing of the cadavers, even when Dr. Holmes retired, and his son, Arthur, took over. She thought of them not as nameless, lifeless bodies, but as human beings deserving of at least one measure of kindness in their often too short and hapless lives. She talked to them about the news of the day, the latest gossip on her street and, of course, reminisced about her favorite subject, the Chicago World’s Fair.
“I tried a Pabst beer one night,” she confided to her latest visitor. “It made me dizzy.”
One night as Mary lay in bed, her breathing became shallow. A dull pain started in the pit of her stomach and rose up to her throat as though a hand was squeezing it mercilessly. She tried to move, cry out, but she was powerless to do so. She felt herself sinking slowly into a darkness that terrified her.
She was suddenly aware of a spiritual presence enveloping her. She could feel the gentle touch of someone anointing her forehead, lips and breast. She smiled, welcoming the familiarity of the ritual she had performed so many times on others, now being performed on her by those very same spirits.
Then there was the sensation of flying through space and time, the experience tickling her, making her giddy. She looked down and recognized Jackson Park. Before her was the fair of so many years ago, alive and bustling as it was on the first day she visited.
“Remember how you told us about all the buildings of the Great White City,” she heard a voice say.
“The statue of The Republic on the edge of the Great Basin…the amusement area…the rides you took on the Ferris wheel..,” said another.
“Scott Joplin playing the piano…,” said yet another.
“Remember how you sang and danced for us,” they said together, “and shared your stories with such loving kindness, dear, sweet Mary?”
A hand stroked her hair, another touched her cheek. Soon the space around Mary was filled with beings of every sort and from every age and place, revealing the grand mosaic of humanity since the beginning of time.
A pair of fingers rose slowly to her face and in one tender motion closed her eyes upon the world.
Bio: Joe Cappello has a special interest in the workplace and families and the bewildered inhabitants of both. Recent work includes “Dead,” published on February 4, 2019, in Flash Fiction magazine; “The Clean Room,” a chapbook published by Blue Cubical Press in December 2017; honorable mention in the 2017 George Dila Memorial Flash Fiction Contest for “The Dunbar Overpass,” appearing in the print edition of Third Wednesday, Vol. X, No. 4; “Paperless,” appearing in the online version of PIF Magazine, October 2017.