Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode VI

Quarantine Lunch à Deux

Entering the basement kitchen in search of her missing mask, Dolly surprised Laura and Phyllis, seated at opposite ends of the long table where Dolly had once kneaded dough for her sticky buns, mixed up waffle batter, or chopped green peppers and ham for omelets, making the hearty breakfasts the Magdalena Arms was famous for.

The communal breakfasts were now a distant memory. And a good thing, too, Dolly reminded herself. It certainly would have been awkward, feeding her boarders buffet style, given the new health requirements!

The two Bay City civil servants started guiltily at Dolly’s entrance, as if their landlady had interrupted them in a clinch rather than munching sandwiches two yards away from each other.

“Hello!” she greeted them. “Just getting my mask. Don’t let me interrupt your lunch date.”

“Oh, we’re not on a lunch date!” said Phyllis.

“That is, we’re having lunch,” clarified Laura, as if to explain the half-eaten sandwich in front of her. “But, we just came down here to…escape our apartments.”

“Yes, we both had the same idea, but it wasn’t planned,” said Phyllis, who planned her life down to the second. 

“Two minds, with but a single thought,” murmured Dolly, as she rummaged around the kitchen sink, trying to remember where she’d left her mask. The last thing she wanted to do was interrupt this promising tête-à-tête!

The romance between the serious statistician and her sociologist soul-mate had been simmering for so long that if love was coffee, theirs would be sludge by now. First Phyllis was recovering from a failed fling with a two-timing supervisor; then Laura was finishing her masters while working full time. “We must help Laura stay focused,” Phyllis had repeated to the Magdalena Arms girls, but it was clear she was talking to herself. 

Everyone thought the frustrated romance would finally burst into bloom after Laura’s degree was conferred, but another obstacle arose: Laura was offered a plum job at the Bay City Planning Department–where Phyllis was Assistant Zoning Manager. Even though Laura didn’t actually report to Phyllis, both Bay City bureaucrats were too ethical to embark on an office romance that might be misconstrued.

At the time, Dolly had asked Laura, “What about that other job offer, to be policy analyst at the whatsamajigger?”

“The Urban Institute? I’ve thought about it,” Laura admitted. “It would be more interesting, in some ways, but the benefits of working in Bay City bureaucracy can’t be beat!”

“Aren’t there other advantages to working at the Urban Institute?” Dolly pushed.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Laura parried.

“Well, you wouldn’t have any qualms about dating Phyllis, for one,” said Dolly bluntly.

“Who says she wants to date me?” Laura asked, nervously smoothing her hair into the tidy chignon she’d worn back then. “She thinks of me as a protege, not a dating prospect!”

“Oh Laura, you’d be a catch for any girl in the Arms!” Dolly protested.

It had often astounded the veteran landlady that attractive, accomplished Laura had fallen for the single-minded statistician.

“So is Phyllis,” Laura retorted. “I know you and your gang think of her as nothing more than a fussy bureaucrat, but in our profession she’s got quite a reputation–why, no one can make a chart do the things Phyllis can! I feel fortunate that she’s given me so much of her time and advice over the years. And I’m sure,” she added as Dolly tried to interrupt, “That it has more to do with her sense of — of noblesse oblige to the next generation of civil servants, than anything else.”

Dolly had given up trying to interfere, hoping that her two mixed-up tenants would manage their love lives without her help. But instead she’d watched the two fall further into a muddle of misunderstanding.

It was at the party celebrating Laura’s degree and job offer. The Arms’s lounge had been packed. There’d been cake and champagne; toasts and impromptu dancing. At the end of the evening, as the crowd thinned, Laura and Phyllis, with one instinct, had moved to the buffet table to tidy.

“So you really think the planning department job is…is right for me?” Dolly heard Laura ask Phyllis. The landlady peered around a pillar and saw that Laura was looking down as she asked the seemingly casual question, apparently focused on fitting the remains of her “Happy Graduation” cake into a too-small tupperware container.

“Well, of course!” Phyllis exclaimed, vehemently. The statistician was sweeping energetically around the buffet table. “You’ll be wonderful at it!” For a moment she slowed her vigorous sweeping and stole a glance at the younger girl, “Why do you ask? Do you have any…reservations?” 

“Not about the job, per se…” Laura carefully concentrated on fitting the tupperware lid over the cake.

“Because you’re perfect for it!” Phyllis attacked the crumbs under the table again. 

“I was just thinking, won’t it be…be…”Laura groped for the next word before finishing “odd to be working in the same department?”

“You mean, with me?” Phyllis seemed taken aback. Then she began sweeping so hard Dolly feared for the broom. “I can assure you–“

“Not odd, that’s not what I meant–“

“I will be completely professional. No one will even know we’re–we’re acquainted.”

“Well, of course, I would expect nothing less,” Laura busied herself brushing crumbs off the table onto the newly swept floor. “I’ll be the same.”

“You’ll have free rein to make your own–connections. Professional, collegial I mean.”

“I won’t get in your way either,” Laura said briskly.

At which point Dolly had intervened, sending Laura to say good night to a cluster of departing guests, and taking the battered broom away from Phyllis. But the damage had been done. Even after Laura transferred to the Housing Department, relations between her and Phyllis had stayed cooly professional–especially when Laura took up with a nurse friend of Beverly’s.

The pandemic had been both a blessing and a curse. The crisis had acted on the two women’s feelings like spring on frozen sap; but what was the next move? Phyllis and Laura had never been clever about closing the distance between them–how could they possibly manage when six feet was mandated by health department order? 

Now Laura broke the awkward silence while Dolly hunted for her mask. “We heard the front door buzzer,” she said. “Another package?”

Since the shutdown, the influx of packages had increased to the point that Dolly had left all of the Arms inmates know she could not be expected to answer the door every time a delivery person rang, and that if they wanted their packages, they’d better keep an ear peeled.

“No, it was just Pam and Lois. They’ve come to help clean out Mrs. DeWitt’s–aha!” She spotted her mask, made from an old flower-sprigged sheet, dangling from the antenna of an ancient radio on top of the refrigerator, and whisked it on. “Ta ta, you two.”

Behind her she heard the sound of chairs scraped back. 

“I should be getting back to work.” 

“Me too. Thank you for sending me the link to the Iceland study’s raw data. The model that they used…” 

Dolly rolled her eyes as she climbed the stairs. She’d considered trapping the pair together on the elevator, disabling it between floors and pretending it had broken. But what good would it do? No matter how many hours she left Phyllis and Laura penned up together, she’d open the elevator doors only to find them maintaining as much distance as possible and discussing statistical models. 

Dolly sighed as she thumped upstairs. Hadn’t the pandemic taught those two that life was too short to be spent pussyfooting around with statistics while suppressing their true desires?

Next: A Sorting Spat

Lois and Dolly quarrel over the disposal of Mrs. DeWitt’s detritus, and Dolly worries about Pam’s strange lethargy.

Tune in every Friday for a new episode! (or maybe even oftener! Always depending on the author’s unpredictable schedule!)

Find all the previous episodes here; or start reading from the first episode.

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