Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms, Episode I

On the Fifth Floor…

In Apartment 501, Phyllis was hunched over her laptop, studying a graph as intricate as a spiderweb, tiny intersecting lines representing death rates and confirmed cases from around the world. “There’s hopeful news from Estonia,” reported the steadfast statistician, ever-eager to find a bright spot in the gray clouds of the pandemic.

“That’s nice,” said Maxie, who was sitting the required six feet away on Phyllis’s bed. Her second cup of coffee was on the bedside table, her nimble thumbs were flying busily as she texted her friend Stella. “But what’s the news closer to home?”

Ooo! Send me a picture! Maxie texted. I’m still in my dressing gown and negligée, the dark pink one.

Down the hall in apartment 502 (a spacious one-bedroom Dolly had constructed out of rooms 505, 506, the communal bathroom, and the end of the corridor), Kay played “Sophisticated Lady” on her clarinet. She had the place to herself; her landlady-girlfriend was off somewhere in the building doing maintenance, or maybe making a trellis for grape vines in the backyard. Kay had been watching a YouTube video on embouchure when Dolly announced her plans over breakfast, and hadn’t paid close attention. She lipped her reed, trying to remember the YouTube teacher’s instructions, but the different tongue placement felt odd. Do I sound any different? She took a breath and blew the next phrase, And in this heart of yours burned a flame…the mournful notes drifted through the Arms. 

“What?” said Netta into her phone. “Sorry, Kay’s playing her sax down the hall, I couldn’t hear you.” She listened to Lois’s rapid flow for a few moments. “Lois, you have to be realistic. You can’t read every improving book your email newsletters recommend. And I don’t think watching all of Ingmar Bergman’s films is the best idea, especially not on top of the online philosophy class. Lois, there’s no percentage in turning the pandemic into some marathon self-improvement binge!” She listened for a moment, then said, “Even if it’s a meditation class, it’s still a knee-jerk need to cling to some sort of warped work ethic.. And aren’t you still working from home anyway?”

Across Town…

“We don’t have much work, now that our retail clients are all closed,” fretted Lois. She stood in the kitchen of the apartment she shared with Pamela, her phone to her ear. The dishes were done, the floor had been waxed and polished, and she had completed the annual spring cleaning of her personal files two weeks ahead of schedule. “I have nothing to do,” she said forlornly. “I might as well use this—this situation for a productive purpose!”

Back in the Arms, Netta rolled her eyes. Lois didn’t like to even say the word pandemic. It was too depressing. But Netta’s old fondness for Lois blunted the left-wing teacher’s penchant for plain speaking. Instead she asked, “Speaking of retail, how’s Pamela?”

Lois glanced towards the bedroom door at the far end of the hallway. It was still closed. Her eyes travelled to the stove, where the scrambled eggs and bacon she’d left warming in the oven were probably beginning to shrivel. “She’s fine!” Lois hoped Netta wouldn’t notice that her cheeriness was a trifle forced. “Pamela’s been using this—this opportunity to catch up on her rest.”

The Fifth Floor again…

The sax launched into the second part of the song, the notes dancing back and forth as they climbed upward, before swinging back down. They sounded clear in Beverly’s room. If the hard-working nurse had been home, she might have hummed along under her breath, singing her favorite line: Smoking, drinking, never thinking of tomorrow…nonchalant… But the room was empty. At that moment, Beverly was in Bay City General hospital, carefully donning protective garb as she prepared to go on duty.

The Fourth Floor…

Lon heard the sax on the fourth floor as she panted her way through a series of push-ups. Six years ago, when Dolly had embarked on the big overhaul of the Magdalena Arms, turning the single rooms and communal bathrooms into small studios and one-bedroom apartments, Maxie had asked for the entire fourth floor. She claimed she needed room for her many enterprises, and her lavish renovation dwarfed all of the apartment conversions put together. She’d gutted the entire floor, down to the rafters and studs, then had a horde of workers remake it into a sort of lavishly appointed artist’s loft. Dolly had refused to let Maxie alter the Magdalena Arms’s granite facade with the cantilevered deck, she’d proposed, but had agreed to a more modest projection in the rear of the building. So now a wall of windows overlooking the tiny back garden ran along the rear wall, flooding the open kitchen with light. Sunlight sparkled on the rarely used chromium fixtures: the convection oven, the gas range capable of frying dozens of pancakes at once. There was even a marble-topped island with a concealed cooling element for rolling out pastry. “I need it for recipe testing,” Maxie had justified the expense. The apartment also featured a concealed sound system and an architect-designed shelving system of Brazilian mahogany that lit up to display the books put out by Fifth Floor Editions, the publishing company, Maxie had started. 

Maxie loved luxury—the more unneccessary the better. Lon often thought that the only truly essential parts of Maxie’s showplace were the couch, cocktail cart, and telephone. Eight times out of nine you could find Maxie comfortably ensconced in the corner of the L-shaped couch, feet up, a tray on the glass-topped coffee table, phone to her ear, as she spun some new scheme.

When she was in town, of course. It was purest chance that she’d flown back to Bay City from Switzerland just as the shut down began. Lon had been so relieved to see her walk in the door unannounced, scarcely days before the first confinement order was issued.

But now…

“Is that all you really want?” Lon sang between gasps as she performed a second repetition of pushups. She was in the small room she’d insisted on, her only contribution to the redesign. “I need privacy if you don’t,” she’d told Maxie.

Now she wondered if this room would be enough.

The Third Floor…

In her apartment on the third floor, Laura did not hear the sax. She was on a conference call with her noise-canceling headphones covering her ears. “I think we should anticipate pushback from the union if we move forward with the disaster service worker call-up,” she said. “There will surely be questions about PPE.” She listened and sighed. “Yes, I know.”

Down the hall, Sylvia and Terry were sitting in the kitchen. Terry was making a grocery list. “How about bread?” she asked. “Should I get some more?”

Sylvia was smoking and reading The Bay City Sentinel on her iPad. “Honey, we have five loaves in the freezer.”

“But we have another mouth to feed,” Terry protested. Two weeks ago Sylvia’s daughter Linda had come home from her sophomore year of college.

“She’s gluten-free now,” said Sylvia. 

“She is?” Terry brightened. “I better track down some gluten-free bread.” The pint-sized butch sprang up and hurried over to the living room door, which was closed. She and Sylvia had turned that room over to Linda when she returned home, agreeing that the college girl would need her own space. 

Now Terry knocked and called, “Linda honey? Do you have a brand of gluten-free bread you like? I’m doing some shopping today!”

After a short delay the muffled reply arrived: “I don’t care!”

“Are you sure? What about rice, are you okay with the white rice or should I get some brown?”

“I don’t care! I’m trying to do class!”

Terry sat back down at the table and frowned at her list. “I think I’ll try to get her some brown rice.”

The Second Floor…

The music was just a faint echo on the second floor, which was empty. If Ramona had been home in the apartment she shared with Jackie, she might have shouted “Turn up the volume baby! Swing it!” But Ramona was at the cannabis dispensary she managed and she’d taken Jackie with her. “You might as well come along since your show’s closed,” she said. “We’re busier than ever and could use the help.”

One studio’s occupant was still asleep, curled into a little ball. She’d found a job in Bay City, moved into a new apartment, lost her job and been confined to the new apartment all in the space of a month.

The First Floor…

The other second-floor studio was empty. It’s occupant, Angelo, was on the first floor in his salon, “Angel Hair.” He was lying back in one of the hair salon chairs, filing his nails and brooding. His thoughts followed a familiar pattern: How is hairdressing not an essential business? It’s necessary for morale! I have masks. I have hand sanitizer. Hairdressers know all about sanitation—everyone knows one case of lice can kill a business. We’re used to dealing with germs and vermin!

Across from the salon, On the other side of the grand hallway with its chandelier and mosaic tiling, Mrs. DeWitt’s apartment was empty. The last echo of music died out in the dim room, crowded with old-fashioned, over-stuffed furniture, silver-framed photos, piles of scrapbooks, magazines, newspaper clippings, theater programs, the paraphernalia of a long and varied life. No one had had the heart to start sorting and cleaning. “She was old and frail,” Beverly had reminded them. “It was bound to happen, even without the virus.” 

The Sub-basement Storeroom

Down in the sub-basement, underneath the old-fashioned, rarely used kitchen, Dolly was working up a sweat. She’d cleared all the remaining storeroom detritus to one side and was prying off the molding that ran around the room, midway up the wall.

“Come on,” she whispered, working her pry bar from side to side. The wood inched outward, shrieking on the ancient nails. She wedged a second pry bar further down and gave them a simultaneous wrench. The board splintered and a four foot length fell to the ground, taking a chunk of plaster with it.

Dolly, who had jumped back, looked at the wreckage and pursed her lips. She’d hoped to get the length of moulding off in one piece. But still, “Progress!” she told herself. 

Next: Pamela Has the Blues

Pamela Prendergast, former doyenne of dressing at a now shuttered department store, has been reduced to pajamas and bedhead! Whether sleeping until noon or sipping beer in front of the news, Pam is a shattered wreck of her former take-charge self. How can her concerned girlfriend snap her out of this catastrophic Covid-induced depression??

Tune in every Friday, for a new episode! (at least until the author’s work situation changes)