Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode II

Irregular Hours

At 11 a.m. Lois opened the door to the bedroom she and Pamela shared to see if her girlfriend was awake yet. 

Pam was an inanimate lump in the bed, burrowed under the blue bedspread with only a few wisps of red hair showing bright against the white pillow. She’d turned her back to the daylight that filtered through the blinds.

Lois tiptoed up the edge of the bed and peered worriedly down at her girlfriend of almost a decade. From this perspective she could now see an inch or two of pale, freckled skin. “Pam,” she said softly. “Don’t you want to get up? It’s eleven already!”

Slowly Pamela turned, her face emerging from the crumpled sheets. One gray-green eye squinted at Lois. “What time is it?” 

“Eleven,” Lois repeated.

“Well,” Pam turned fully over and blinked at the ceiling, “I guess I missed breakfast.”

The head buyer for women’s wear at Gruneman’s department store had been home for two-and-a-half weeks. The first week she’d been busy from morning until night, calling suppliers, rescheduling deliveries, conferring with other buyers, and “the gang in finance,” as she always referred to them. She’d jumped out of bed at 7:00 a.m. as usual, and scribbled notes in her planner while she drank her coffee and crunched on her dry toast. She’d even dressed for the office at first, putting on a paisley maxi dress with gold link belt and chartreuse scarf because it was, “Good for morale.” Lois had done the same and together they’d commuted to their Danish modern dining table, where they simultaneously donned headphones as they sat down and their separate workdays began. Lois, too, had remote meetings and phone calls conferring with the higher-ups at Sather and Stirling, the advertising agency where she was office manager.

But as Pam’s tasks turned grimmer—cancelling the deliveries she’d rescheduled, laying off the lingerie department, holding tense discussions with accounts payable—she’d dropped the work-wear for slacks and a sweater; at the last virtual meeting, when she and the other buyers were put on half-pay “until June when we reassess”, she’d simply covered her polka-dotted pajama top with a striped silk scarf. Lois knew then that Pamela was seriously perturbed—ordinarily she would never pair the two clashing patterns! 

Now Gruneman’s doyenne of dressing hardly got out of her pajamas. She ate odd meals at odd hours—paté on ritz crackers, peanutbutter and honey sandwiches, olives or tunafish straight from the can. She spent her evenings sitting in front of the television and nursing a beer, watching the news, the same stories repeated at 6, 6:30, 10, 10:30, and 11. Once Lois had woken to find herself alone in bed. She’d crept out to the living room and there was Pam, on the couch, tears streaming down her face as she watched an old training video on bra-sizing.  

Be patient, Lois had told herself. She’ll snap out of it. The stalwart office manager had kept the household running, standing in long lines for delicacies to tempt Pamela, and researching recipes as she attempted to recreate Pam’s favorite restaurant dishes—patty melts, veal piccata, steak tartare. She’d cleaned the house for the first time in years, finding a certain satisfaction in discovering that the skills she’s learned so long ago in Mrs. Grimes Dom Sci class were still intact. 

And she’d had her own share of grim phonecalls as Sather and Stirling, their work reduced to a few food and detergent accounts (which hardly needed advertising), shut down and cutback. She’d reassured the despondent members of the typing pool that they’d have jobs “when this was all over” but she hardly believed it herself anymore. Mrs. Pierson, the managing partner, had retreated to her country house on Loon Lake; ensconced there with only an invalid friend, her cook, and a registered nurse, far from Bay City and its mounting rate of positive cases, she seemed to have forgotten the agency. Her new preoccupation was survival, and she pestered Lois with requests to order pedal-powered generators,  gardening supplies, and cases of liquor, all to be expressed to her remote cabin.

“Do what you like, Lois,” she’d interrupted, when Lois queried her about mundane details such as payroll and print bills. “These are end times, mark my words. End times.”

Lois had no energy to argue with apocalypse-minded executive. Her primary concern was Pamela. It was painful to watch her once sturdy sweetheart wasting away under pandemic strain. Now, as Pamela slowly sat up, Lois noted the blue shadows under her eyes, the way the polka-dotted pajamas hung loosely about her torso. Why, if the dreaded virus did make it past the barricade of precautions Lois had taken, the dozens of daily handwashing, the plastic-curtained “decontamination zone” in the entryway, where she put mail, packages, and grocery bags, the gloves and the masks, the sanitizers, the stocked freezer that had made it unnecessary to leave the surgically sterile apartment for the past two weeks…if somehow a speck of virus made it through and leapt to Pam’s hand, and then to the eye Pam was now rubbing—why, the once respected retailer would simply crumple under the infection like an overused tissue!

“Pam!” Anxiety made Lois’s voice sharp. “Get up! I’m going to make you eggs, bacon, toast, a fresh pot of coffee, and you’re going to eat them all! And then—”

“And then what?” Pam challenged her, pushing back the tangle of over-grown hair from her face. 

“And then we’re going to cut your hair!” Lois declared.

Next: Maxie Can’t Keep Her Distance

The gregarious girl is jonesing for her old social life, and her scofflaw tendencies are driving Phyllis wild! Is social pressure enough to teach Madcap Maxie to toe the health department line, or are sterner measures needed?

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

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