It was there in the hall by the closed glass doors that the mask’s strap snapped. A yellow rubber strap weakened with the heat, stretched until it broke. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to her. Olga was always donning the same mask, plus a yellow plastic apron, a flimsy thing worn to wrap a corpse for the morgue. Olga’s arms would flow over the body, folding, tucking, making ready for the first grave; removing catheters, intravenous lines, making the flesh look respectable for the pathologist, medical examiner, undertaker. The mask’s strap was fatigued, is all, having been baked in the oven next to fish. It shouldn’t have surprised her.
Olga possessed a great deal of ingenuity and fortitude and wasn’t easily surprised. She had many admirers who thought she made flesh look respectable. After work Olga took the train to Flatbush and bought whichever fish was newly cheap. Typically, she stopped at the church to pray for her decent husband, then she baked fish in the oven for dinner for him, though he had been chilly to her. Her husband not working, unremunerated now. His skin so cool, a flimsy sheet of plastic under her fingers. You can’t do anything with something like that. Lifeless flesh fatigued from the little deaths. What can you do with such a man?
Olga washed the bodies when they were dirty, as they were, sometimes with blood on the neck or groin. Swift movement of her hands on still flesh, flesh still assigned a sort of identity, but this calling a corpse Mr. So-and-So was solely for the benefit of the “loved” ones. Fold and tuck.
Olga had work wrapping bodies, she told her husband, a decent man. He didn’t need to worry. Olga had an inner strength and people admired her flesh and what she knew to do with fish. She’d baked her mask in the oven but then the yellow rubber strap had weakened with the heat and it snapped in the hall. The mask fell off her face and onto the linoleum by the closed glass doors beyond which the corpse lay, and Olga gasped. The hall was stacked with boxes of make-shift shit: grain alcohol in dark brown spray bottles brewed instead of booze, white polyester coveralls, patterned cotton masks sewn by grandmothers from leftover calico cloth. Leftover fish from the city’s waterfront cut into small squares, dressed with wasabi and soy in a coconut-husk disposable dish. Olga had never eaten such a meal. Never in her life had she eaten raw fish dressed with soy and wasabi! A mustard or horseradish tang, is how she would call it. She wasn’t quite sure about the consumption, but since it was lean and people used to pay to eat it in a restaurant near the park, and since it was available free of charge in the breakroom, she’d placed a small square of dressed raw fish on the tip of her tongue and thought about lemons. While she ate, she wore her mask high on her forehead, which fatigued the yellow rubber strap, which later snapped in the hall in front of the closed glass doors beyond which she had to wrap a body, and her mouth and nose were visible to any and all admirers. The disposable gear was depleted, and she was fairly forced to don a calico replacement.
She’d had a cat once, a female type with blotchy black or orange squares on her soft white fur. She’d fed the cat tuna fish from a can, but it was the oily kind. The fish literally swimming in oil, not literally-actually, but the flesh sloshing in oil in a tin can, not tin literally or actually, but whatever they made cans with these days. Tin is too soft for cans these days, is what Olga understood. The oil leaked out of the rear of the cat and onto their bright white carpet. After that, her husband, a decent man, put the cat out.
She’d had admirers.
The doors were closed and a curtain closed in there too, but she could tell that there was a body ready to be wrapped for the morgue. The corpse of Mr. What’s-His-Name. Or Mrs. Thingy. Regarding this sentimental attachment to identity after death: it’s best not to look for an explanation. Something might come up, and what good does that do? Olga’s mouth and nose were exposed and she breathed the fine mist of death which leaked out from under the glass doors. This was before she found the box of calico masks, dreadful things. It was Sixta who opened the curtain, then opened the glass doors of the room where the body waited to be tucked and folded. The mist of death tagged along behind her like a pet.
“He’s very clean,” said Sixta. “He smells like lilacs.”
“I am not in favor of smelling the corpse,” said Olga. She stretched her arms across her chest to grab her back. From behind, it might have looked like an embrace. Olga knew what she was doing. She’d had admirers, though her husband was a decent man. “The strap of my mask snapped,” said Olga to Sixta. “I’d hate to breathe that body’s mist. Really, I shouldn’t work at all.” Sixta nodded in sympathy, though she knew it’s best not to look for an explanation. Who knows what kind of explanation people construct when you are remunerated for wrapping corpses for the morgue and the strap of your mask snaps? It’s best not to look for one. It can be dangerous to either look for or find out the what or wherefor. Many people with pluck and decent husbands went to church to pray about just such an explanation, but Olga preferred to be left alone in a room tucking and folding, folding and tucking. Making a body ready for its first grave.
“Sometimes it’s best not to look for a mask,” said Sixta. Olga noticed a trace of complacency in Sixta’s soft voice. A sour-hot sensation on the tongue as one might get from eating dressed fish. Olga noticed an obscure expression on Sixta’s face, and shouldn’t have been surprised. It was not at all surprising when Sixta put her finger on the counter and traced out a message. What did it say? Something once murmured to a certain Mrs. Whenever-You-Want once her body had become over-and-done-with behind glass doors.
“I am tired of demonstrating what to do with a man,” said Olga.
Sixta showed her teeth.
Her husband was a decent man, Olga allowed, though fatigued from the little deaths. He’d been remunerated for the stripping of paint from doors and windows. He’d brought the calico cat home from an old hotel where he stripped Antique Coin paint from the ballroom panels and Glass Tile paint from the chair rail. She’d had a conversation with him about the animal. Could they keep her in secret? This was her husband’s fervent wish. He’d dropped the cat on the bed along with his protective gear, stripped a cotton tee from his chest and let his heavy canvas dungarees fall to the white carpet where the old paint left a stain. It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Her husband was a decent man and seldom drunk, but he wrapped that cat up in his bare arms, brought her with him into the shower, washed the stripper from its fur. Miss Love-Me-Do.
The problem wasn’t this.
The glass doors and the curtain gaped and the corpse’s mist drifted out towards Olga’s mouth and nose. Olga didn’t smell lilacs at all. The polyester curtains fanned out to the hall as if hinged. A curious wind blew in from a sky but made no sound. The problem was that Sixta thought Olga was disposable. She’d had admirers, yes, and knew how to fold and tuck to make flesh look respectable. A hazy burial for the cat in the park when her husband put it out after it leaked oil from its rear. Olga knew that it was best not to look for an explanation. A strap snapped off and the mask fell on the floor, that was the entirety of the situation. Situations musn’t take one by surprise. Situations can be a daily event, if not twice a day, depending on the circumstances. The problem was that all along Olga had complained about her mouth and nose being exposed. The bright moon shone on her face in the park when she’d had admirers. Admirers smiled at her calmly, not to worry. Problems like her mouth and nose being exposed at night in the park and the false smell of fish. There, there. Right before a thunderstorm the air is so electric. Olga could not remember this, for more recently she had been forgetting where she kept her grain alcohol. The problem wasn’t this. The problem was that her strapped snapped after she baked her mask in the oven and now she could not be remunerated for the folding and tucking of bodies. The simplicity of the situation, when considered correctly, was stunning.
Olga could look good in a wrap dress. She’d had admirers. A polyester knit in a pattern of small orange squares cinched around her waist with a yellow strap, and a man stopped her when she walked home from church, asked to press his mouth and nose against her neck. At night she might walk in the park under the moon, alone or together. This was not the problem. The problem was that her husband was a decent man so it’s best not to look for an explanation about his work stripping in hotels the finish from the sills of windows.
There was an orange light on the ceiling which flashed in squares. Little compound squares flashing at her eyes, pressing words into her mouth, onto her hands. Olga gathered the words, held them close to her chest. She walked down the hall away from the body, towards the window at the end of the wall. Antique tile lined the way and paint peeled from a door frame in new territory. This shouldn’t have surprised her. Olga tried the handle of a door she didn’t know, which snapped to attention. Don’t attempt to look for an explanation, said the room. The outdoors floated in from the window; a view of the dark park where pets pulled at straps, fatigued decent people.
“It is not an explanation I am looking for,” Olga protested to the room. “Someone is playing tricks on me and my strap snapped and it’s been a half-year since I’ve had an admirer!”
The room grinned at her with sharp teeth. There was a sofa in there and bowl of dressed raw fish and the most beautiful window she had ever seen. It twinkled at the edges where little orange squares of glass refracted the high light of silent trees. The sharp-sloped not-tin roof of a church. A soft black corpse mouth dressed to fold and tuck. Olga put her fingers on the sill and paint flaked onto the white carpet. Her husband was a decent man. Mr. Work-For-Pay. Whatever it was she had wanted to say, she couldn’t say it now. The strap had snapped and exposed her mouth and nose. It shouldn’t have surprised her. Now was not the time to think about a moon cat neck strapped wrapped flesh gift. Still, this was not the problem. Still, the problem was that it didn’t matter what Olga wore or left bare. Nothing that she could put on or take off would make her any less alone.
A sharp light sliced through charged air. The trees rubbed their hands over the night sky’s curves. Olga opened the window, grasped its sash. An explanation flew into the room, settled on her shoulders. An explanation tugged at her clothes, pulled at the cotton fabric until she was cool and indecent. An orange light on the ceiling flashed in squares. Little compound squares reflecting off of her bare skin. It is my understanding, said Olga to the silence, that caution is no longer required. The scent of her body rose with the breeze to meet thunderheads.
Barbara Lock is a writer, emergency physician, and MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College. She works at NewYork Presbyterian Hospital / Columbia University Irving Medical Center, where she experienced the peak of the pandemic. Her short fiction appears in Best Short Stories From The Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest 2020, and in Fiction International, Algorithm issue.