Love and Typhoid
by Matthew Bissonnette
New York city during the winter of 1915 as this metropolis and all of America was riding a tide of change as new technologies became more common; things like electricity and even automobiles had begun to become commonplace though horse drawn carriages could still be on seen pulling their passengers amongst these new mechanical innovations such as cars on the streets of New York. Skyscrapers, towers of concrete and glass loomed over the snow strewn streets as snow fell from the sky. Within the city though was New York's Sloane hospital for women in a rundown area of the city; an older building which tended to women who where ill; it seem somewhat of a gloomy and foreboding place. As night began to fall, janitor Nathan Dowd walked towards the front doors since his shift was about to begin.
Nathan was a slim man who was still young but had prematurely gray hair; he had thick spectacles over his eyes and he whore gray overalls. He was late for his shift but was not concerned since he worked while everyone else in the hospital was either asleep or to busy tending to their duties to notice his lateness. But his mind was not on work, he had finally worked up the nerve to talk to a woman he had wanted to speak with for nearly a month.
He walked through the darkened empty hallways as his footsteps made clomping noises on the marble floor which echoed through the sterile halls, floors he spent most nights mopping. Right now his mind was not on work but on what he would say to her. A few months before; a petite woman of his age had joined the kitchen staff. She had dark brunette curls and equally dark eyes which he noticed seemed far to weary and worn for a young woman. She, like him, just tended to her duties and seemed to barely speak to anyone. No one else at the hospital took much notice of her, but Nathan found her to be a mysterious enigma. But he had been unable to approach her because he found being eloquent with the fairer sex was never easy for him. Though now he had to know more about this mystery which he had become enamored with.
Nathan then entered the kitchen and was glad to find her there, inside a large space full of stoves and other implements for the preparation of food, large pots and pans hung from hooks along one wall. The woman, dressed in white apron and a dark, drab dress was scrubbing a dirty pot in the sink and he look at her from behind and tried to find the nerve to speak.
He then nervously said, “Mary, mind if we talk?”
She did not stop scrubbing the pot but replied, “what do you want Mr. Dowd and why do you want to talk to me?”
He explained, “I've seen you working her for the past few months, and I must confess, I for awhile have wanted to get to know you.”
She stopped briefly and looked over her shoulder at him then returned to scrubbing the pot; when she had looked at him she was frowning. She then said, “if our employers find you and I not tending to our duties then we both might be standing in a breadline soon.”
Nathan turned to leave and said, “I guess an attractive woman like you would not want to speak to a man such as myself.”
She then stopped again, turned and looked at him quizzically. “Is that genuine flattery or are you playing a joke on a worn, beaten down woman?”
Nathan looked at her again and briefly smiled. “No, you seem very dark but also very mysterious and fetching. I admit I have been pondering about you Mary for more then a month. Everyone else in this hospital I have pretty much figured out; everyone but you. You seem like you don't fit in here.”
She told him, “lately, I have not fit in anywhere and I move around a lot. Why are you interested in me Mr. Dowd really?”
He then was honest. “From your eyes, I can tell that you are someone who is sorrowful. My life has not been easy, growing up in an orphanage and working one low paying job after another with barely enough money to feed myself. I see those eyes every time I look into the mirror.”
She then seemed to stare at him then briefly smiled for a moment. She then said, “I see those eyes when I look into the mirror to; eyes that have witnessed all the hardship and grief life contains for people like us.”
“May I ask what your tail of hardship and grief is Mary?”
She returned to scrubbing the pot as she explained, “that is something which I could never tell another soul; but I kind of am starting to like you Mr. Dowd so I will just say that some people are looking for me; and they say I'm dangerous to be around.”
Nathan should have been concerned when she said that, but he only became more enraptured with her. He asked, “why you fleeing? So you won't be imprisoned for a crime you did not commit?”
“No,” she explained, “people around me get sick, that is why I keep to myself.”
Then Nathan finally worked up the nerve to ask her what he wanted to ask since he first spoke to her. “Mary, would you like to have dinner with me?”
She did not look at him as she replied, “have you not been listening, getting close to me could be perilous for for health and your life.”
Nathan just looked at her as he explained, “I have been with few women whom I never could understand, but since I first saw the sadness in your eyes I knew I met someone who like me lived a hard life without much joy. Also, I've always been a healthy guy so I'll take my chances.”
Mary was silent as she scrubbed the pot and Nathan was sure her silence was her indication that she did not share his interest in getting to know one another better. He lowered his head and was saddened when she blurted out, “OK, tomorrow night we'll have dinner at your place.”
He smiled and said, “thanks, I was afraid I would spend another night alone; eating at an empty table with no company.”
She did not look at him but said, “we can talk later; now we have to tend to our duties.”
He nodded then left, overjoyed that she had reciprocated his interest. But when she was alone she whispered to herself, “Mary, he is going to regret getting to know you and he seems nice, so you should have declined for his sake.” She then looked over her shoulder at the door. “But I need to speak with someone, and he seems like a sad soul as well.”
Then she continued scrubbing the pot.
The next evening.
In the Bronx, inside a dilapidated tenement was the apartment of Nathan Dowd; which consisted of only a large room with a kitchenette and a door to a small bathroom. A couch was along one side and a bed lay before the only window. A phonograph was on a small nightstand beside the couch. The walls where covered with pealing yellow wallpaper. And in the center of the room was a small table which Nathan and Mary sat up; he in a cheap brown suit and she still in her dark dress.
They ate the meager dinner he had prepared in silence, barely having talked at all since she arrived. She looked down at her plate, spaghetti upon it; and he would occasionally steel a glance of her.
Between bites, she suddenly asked, “Mr. Dowd, may I ask you something?”
He replied, “call me Nathan, and ask me anything Mary.”
“Nathan,” she said, “last night it sounded like you implied that you have lived a difficult life. Would you mind telling me of some of you troubles?”
“Why would you like to know Mary?”
She told him, “just curious really.”
He put down his fork then sighed, he then explained, “I never knew my parents; I was left at the city orphanage at the age of four. The mistress who ran it was cruel, especially to me; I still have a few old scars to remember her cruelty. So at fourteen I ran away; and lived on the streets until I found work several years later. Since then I have had many jobs, none have ever withstood the test of time. And all my life, I have been alone.”
Mary said, “last night you mentioned some women you have known.”
Nathan frowned and looked away as he glumly replied, “there was one who I loved dearly; yet she left me for a man who I thought was my friend. And he had a torrid affair with her for a month and threw her away. I wanted to spend my life with that woman and make her happy, this friend only wanted her for a month. Afterward, I decided I would never trust anyone again.”
Mary looked at him and seemed saddened. “I guess for people like us, life is cruel and unfair; almost as if it hates us and wants only to make us suffer.”
Nathan looked at her and asked, “how has life been cruel to you Mary?”
Mary's eyes seemed to glisten as if on the verge of tears. She then told her tail.
“I won't tell you of my life before it happened. But once I was just an ordinary woman, but then people around me became ill, a few even died. I have an illness which does not make me ill, but only makes those around me ill. I lost everyone for whom I cared and then a doctor came, he said I was a carrier for some disease which I myself was immune to but those around me where not. He wanted me to be imprisoned, he used the word quarantined though I do not understand what that word means. He intended that I spend the rest of my life in a hospital. So I fled in the night and changed my name, though once he called me Typhoid Mary. I'm cursed Nathan and I should be locked away; I put those around me at risk. But I can't spend the rest of my life alone in a room. I know I am guilty of a crime by not turning myself in, and could kill somebody again by being near them. But I can't do it; I can't give up the sweet gift of being free. Oh, Nathan; I am cursed really.”
Then she began to shed tears and Nathan just looked at her in in silence. She then got up and walked towards the door, but he rose from his chair and took her hand and she turned to face him and said, “I like you even though we have shared few words, but I could kill you Nathan.”
He brushed the tears away from her cheek with his hand. He then said, “Mary, happiness is something always denied me for some reason; but when I first looked into your eyes I knew those where eyes which sees the world as mine does; a world dreary and bereft of joy. But right now, though we just really met; I feel like I found someone who I know more then anybody. I'll take the risk and damn the consequences.”
She was looking into his eyes when she asked, “why risk your life for time with a woman who is cursed?”
He then lifted her chin up with his hand and smiled, “because you need somebody who cares about you; and even if it means peril for me; I want to spend some time with you. Wait there.”
He then went from her and walked to the phonograph, he used the crank and put the needle down on the record. A slow yet beautiful song bellowed from it as she looked at him. He then slowly walked towards her and took one of her hands and placed his other hand on her hip and she did the same. Then they began to dance as she rested her head on his shoulder.
She muttered, “thank you, I have not been close to someone for so long Nathan.”
Nathan replied, “Mary, we have just started to know one another; but I care for you. And even if being with you means a few weeks instead of a long life; a few weeks with you Mary means more to me then a long life alone. I have to confess something.”
“I love you, I know it sounds foolish since we first talked only yesterday; but I feel more for you then I have anyone. Please, let me try and make you happy; despite any curse or illness; let us just be happy together.”
They looked into each others eyes for a moment then he kissed her slowly. Then she again rested her head on his shoulder and they danced.
She softly whispered, “thank you, I have been so alone.”
He replied, “you will never be alone while I'm here.”
They continued to dance in silence as the night went on.
A day in Manhattan the following spring.
In a city hospital, Nathan lay alone in a bed in a small white room with only one window. He was in a green hospital gown and was coughing and sweating profusely. He had been alone since the hospital staff kept contact to a minimum out of fear of his illness. Then the door opened and a man walked in.
He was a older man with a pencil thin mustache, gray hair and in a gray suit. He then approached the bed and looked down at Nathan.
“Mr. Dowd, where is Mary?”
Nathan coughed hardly and spat up some blood. He looked away and mumbled, “I don't know who you mean.”
The man firmly said, “I know you where close with her; the woman the papers are calling Typhoid Mary. You don't have long left; you have to help me find her. I have searched for her since she escaped my care.”
Nathan looked at him and frowned. “I won't help you find her. My memory has not be so good since I became ill, so I will be of little help to you.”
The man grunted and shook his head. “You foolish bastard, she killed you; do you know that.”
Nathan briefly smiled. “I was more alive those few weeks with her then any other time during my whole life. So please, go away for I will tell you nothing.”
The man seemed upset but left the room silently. Once he was gone, Nathan looked to the blue sky outside the window and smiled; even though he was near his end he was not afraid.
He said lowly, “Mary, I shall miss you.”
Nathan then closed his eyes knowing his demise approached, yet he felt no regret.
© Copyright 2016 Matthew Bissonnette. All rights reserved.