Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XI

Missed the earlier episodes? You can find them all hereOr start from the beginning with Episode I and use the “next” button at the top the screen to move between episodes.

In our last episode, the Magdalena Arms girls began to pool their wits and resources to help hunt for Mrs. DeWitt’s long lost daughter and missing heir. A blot on the happy hubbub was the discovery of Angelo and Lon’s health code violation, which horrified the two social scientists especially. The pair were positive, however, that no one in the Arms had more serious problems than a hankering for a professional haircut, little knowing how wrong they were!

Millie

Millie Marr sat up in bed, blinking blearily. She’d been dreaming of a fire truck, it’s alarm bell clanging, which she was chasing for some reason.

Like the previous three mornings, she’d snapped straight from uneasy sleep to nervous wakefulness. Except—

It wasn’t morning anymore. The clock on the table next to her narrow bed told her it was well past noon. 

Millie felt a moment of panic, even though there was no schedule for her to keep. And after all, she’d been up past 3 a.m. the previous night, trying repeatedly to register on the Department of Employment and Labor website, and then, when it crashed repeatedly, searching for information, how-to’s, news, and following links until she was lost in the flotsam and jetsam of the web, like a shipwrecked mariner, trying to find a piece of wreckage to cling to.

Now she felt as exhausted as any storm-battered sailor. On top of that, there was a hollow feeling in her stomach that was impossible to ignore. Millie climbed out of bed and made her way to the kitchen.

It was a short trip—just across the room of her tiny studio in Bay City. Two months ago she’d felt lucky to have found an attractive, affordable home at a convenient distance from her new job. But after spending the past two-and-a-half weeks penned up in this one room, excepting brief forays to the grocery store, the studio walls were closing in on her.

She became aware of voices coming from the hallway, a distant, excited buzz. She went to the front door and looked out the peep hole, but saw nothing. She pressed her ear to the wood.

“Dirt…DeWitt” she heard, then some mumbling followed by what sounded like “contacts in Berlin!”

Whatever the mysterious phrases meant, they had nothing to do with her. 

She returned to the kitchen and filled the percolator at the sink. But when she dipped her spoon in the coffee tin for a second scoop, she scraped metal. She upended the tin and banged the bottom, eking out another half teaspoon. Then…nothing.

“Noooo…” She couldn’t help moaning softly. 

It was one thing to be hungry, but to run out of coffee too!

Millie sank into a straight-backed chair as the room spun around her. She felt as empty as the coffee tin—hungry, jobless, friendless, cast adrift in a strange city. And now not even that little bit of zip from caffeine, to help her meet this series of misfortunes!

Only a short time ago, Millie’s prospects were bright. She’d arrived in Bay City fresh from graduate school, thrilled to have nabbed a job as assistant archivist at the Bay City Historical Society. She’d been barely aware of a pesky little flu wreaking havoc in other parts of the world. Millie had always been far more absorbed by the past than the present.

And when she did glance at the news or overhear the anxious talk as she stood in line at the grocery store or waited for the bus to the Historical Society, she’d only thought, well, I’m not planning to go out on the town anyway; or, I always wear gloves at the archive–nothing new there!

But she couldn’t ignore the health order that shuttered the Society. Even then, she’d expected the shutdown to be brief and had filled her time with a webinar on metadata while she waited for the Society to reopen. Then the health order had been extended–and extended again.

And last week her contract had been cancelled.

Sitting in her chair Millie stared blankly at the kitchen counter with the gleaming percolator and the empty sink strainer for a long moment. 

Then she jerked herself to her feet, her mouth compressed into a thin line. She’d weathered hardships before. Hadn’t she put herself through college and graduate school after the foster-care system turned her loose? She’d written the book on making do with meager means those long lean years!

She busied herself with breakfast–weak coffee and dry toast from the last of the bread. She reminded herself, as she ate, of Flora Jernfelt, 1855-1932, Loon Lake pioneer and later Bay City resident. Millie had been cataloging Flora’s diary before the Society’s closure, a fascinating document, which mixed shopping lists and recipes for corn-meal mush with reflections on Bay City’s burgeoning dairy industry and her own family’s never-ending struggle for survival. Flora had pulled through a pandemic, Millie reminded herself. She could too.

In fact, why not use the last five dollars in her wallet to buy a big bag of cornmeal mush and try Flora’s recipe? Cheered by this plan, Millie dressed and attempted to tame her her overgrown gamine hair style before giving up and covering the wild wisps with a sunhat. She donned a mask fashioned from an old striped shirt and added a pair of oversized sunglasses for good measure.

The earlier hubbub had died away and the hallway was deserted when Millie locked the door behind her and descended the curving stairs to the grand entrance hall. She’d fallen in love with the Magdalena Arms’ air of bygone spendor during her hunt for an affordable apartment. Now she wondered if she should have looked further and found something cheaper.

In a corner of the lavish entry her landlady was having a masked confabulation with two others. One was Millie’s neighbor, Angelo, who owned the hair salon. The other was a tall, angular blonde of indeterminate sex. Angelo usually gave Millie a friendly greeting when he saw her, but today he looked unhappy.

“I know I’ve let things slide in the past,” their landlady was saying, as Millie slipped past them. “But I simply can’t anymore!“

The words blew a cold chill over Millie as she quietly let herself out the front door. Were they talking about overdue rent? Was Angelo being threatened with eventual eviction?

She had enough money in the bank to cover next month’s rent, and the month after–if she didn’t eat. But surely she’d be able to collect unemployment before too long?

Millie wondered just how long she could make a bag of cornmeal mush last. The Jernfelt family had survived the panic of 1873 purely on mush, supplemented by pork fat and potatoes on Sundays.

The street was mostly empty as Millie hurried towards the grocery store, with a waiting, watching quality. She passed an older man walking a small, overweight dog. Both she and the man veered towards opposite edges of the sidewalk, giving each other a wide berth.

At the A&P there was a line outside the door. Millie joined the end, toeing her chalk-marked X. The line was silent, patient, the shoppers like cowed refugees shuffling in some internment camp food line. Millie dug in her purse for something to read, but she’d forgotten to bring her current issue of Archivist Annals, and had nothing.

She looked at her fellow-queuers. Some wore cheerful masks, florals and polka dots, some store-bought masks designed for woodworkers or nurses. It frustrated Millie that she couldn’t see their faces. She’d always studied expressions as a way of taking the social temperature, forecasting sun, showers, or thunder, and planning accordingly. As the line lurched forward another six feet, she considered just how cut-off she was, as isolated as a lighthouse keeper, watching ships pass in the distance. Would she go mad, as was their wont?

Finally, a masked guard waved her through the A&P’s entrance. Once inside the store, Millie snatched a big bag of cornmeal from the decimated baking aisle, and then danced around other shoppers as she hurried to the coffee and tea department.

There were none but economy-sized cans of coffee left on the shelf. Millie looked at the price and at her bag of corn meal mush. She couldn’t get both.

With slow, dragging steps, Millie stood in line, paid for her purchase, and left the store. After standing a moment, irresolute, she turned towards the Dockside neighborhood, where a number of specialty stores had opened in former warehouses. It was a long walk, and the prices these chic little stores charged were exorbitant, but she faintly remembered seeing an Italian emporium that sold coffee by weight. Perhaps she could get enough to at least brew a pot periodically. On Sundays, say.

As the long blocks passed and the cornmeal grew heavy on her arm, Millie trudged doggedly on. Stopping to shift her burden from one arm to the other, a flash of color caught her eye.

An old woman wearing a Marimekko mask and clutching an empty plastic bag hurried past her. Millie’s gaze followed her, as she joined a queue that stretched the rest of the block and turned the corner at the far end. 

Intrigued, Millie walked to the end of the block, observing that the line was almost entirely composed of older women, whose tired footwear and frayed seams indicated they were the older, poorer Dockside residents. Her eyes widened as she turned the corner and saw that the line extended several blocks before turning another corner.

Millie turned to a masked young man wearing an orange vest and holding a sign that said Six Feet Required. “What’s this line for?”

“Food,” said the man. “This goes to a Bay City Food Pantry Giveaway.”

“Giveaway? You mean—” Millie caught her breath—“it’s free? Do I—that is, how would one register? What are the requirements?”

The young man seemed to smile behind his mask. “All you have to do is get in line.”

Millie walked back to the other end of the block and got in line.

Next

Pushed to his limit, usually happy-go-lucky hairdresser Angelo clashes with Dolly while Lon grows increasingly desperate for a release from the prison of confinement.

Tune in every Friday (or even oftener) for a new episode!

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

3 thoughts on “Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XI

  1. Poor Millie! I’m sure the gals would happily embrace her if they knew of her plight!

    Cornmeal mush sounds horrible!

  2. Why, cornmeal mush is also known as “polenta”! Or “grits” in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Here’s a recipe for fried cornmeal mush. Maybe Millie will get some butter in her Food Pantry bag. Or some fatback. I hear in San Francisco, Food Bank recipients were getting pork loins. This story is so close to our sad pandemic reality!

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