In our last episode, Lon sought solitude in the Magdalena Arms garden before fleeing other tenants who have their own need for respite. In this episode readers will meet or renew their acquaintance with Ramona, erstwhile bad girl, currently employed as a cannabis store manager, and her younger girlfriend, the frustrated actress Jackie, as they toke and talk with frazzled landlady Dolly, trying to figure out when Mrs. DeWitt’s missing daughter might have been born.
“But lots of theaters are doing virtual things,” said Ramona, flicking on her lighter and inhaling.
Jackie sighed hugely, as she settled herself next to Ramona on the wooden bench by the burbling backyard fountain. She took the pipe from her girlfriend and after sucking in the soothing smoke, said: “Ramona, the kind of acting I do is about interacting. It’s about physical presence, and what happens between actors when they really listen.” She gesticulated helplessly, “It’s everything that’s forbidden these days!”
After this effort to express herself, Jackie sagged back in her corner of the bench. At twenty-eight she was still a slender sprite of a girl, wearing her usual uniform of jeans and black turtleneck. Her piquant, expressive features and her youthful energy had finally brought her the beginnings of onstage success, just before the pandemic hit. Now the tempestuous series of emotions that had once chased each other across her mobile face, as if blown by a lively spring breeze, had been whittled down to a monotonous trio: indignation, dejection, and anger.
Ramona held out her hand for the pipe, searching for something to say. Jackie was inconsolable on the subject of her cancelled show, and every attempt Ramona had made to comfort her served only to aggravate the thwarted thespian.
So the older woman stayed silent, and waited for the medical marijuana to mellow out the miffed mummer.
The screen door thunked and Dolly appeared, mask on chin, bandanna wound around her bleached curls, a furrow in her brow. “What a day!” she exclaimed. “Any for me?”
Ramona expelled a cloud of smoke and handed the pipe to Dolly, who collapsed into a hammock chair as she sucked in a lungful. “Aaahhh.”
It always amused Ramona to recall how disturbed Dolly had been when Ramona had first introduced marijuana to the Magdalena Arms. For a long time the perturbed landlady had tried to persuade Ramona to give up her toking for more traditional cocktail hour tippling. It was only after wrenching her back while rehanging the entry hall chandelier that Dolly had swapped her martinis for “Mary Jane” as she insisted on calling it.
“Hard day at the office?” Ramona asked. “I’m beat too. Business is booming, which means we barely get a break.”
Dolly was too intent on her own concerns even take in this silver lining in the cloud of pandemic bad news. “Well, first Angelo gave Lon an illicit trim, and unfortunately he got caught, and I had to play the heavy. Then—” Dolly stopped and chewed her lip. “Well, never mind. I don’t want to broadcast tenant business. Oh, but—” She sat up and leaned forward, waving the pipe energetically—“You haven’t heard the news! Mrs. DeWitt had a daughter!”
The story of the dramatic discovery distracted even the solipsistic soliloquist, and Ramona’s mind was already whirring into action as Dolly wound up, “So we’re going to organize ourselves into a kind of detective bureau and track this girl down!”
As the green entrepreneur opened her mouth to get more details, Jackie burst out, “Wouldn’t it be something if it was a Magdalena Arms girl? What about Ilsa? She’s adopted!”
“Ilsa the clog dancer?” Dolly narrowed her eyes and gazed at the agapanthus, as if looking for Ilsa and her clogs. “I dimly remember her. Was she on the third floor, before I renovated?”
“She’s not a clog dancer,” Jackie informed the landlady, “She’s a publicity girl, for a cartoon company.” Her mouth drooped. “She’s probably doing great through this. People can still draw, in confinement.”
“Don’t worry Jackie,” Dolly reached over and nudged her with the pipe. “The pandemic can’t last forever. Pretty soon you’ll be back onstage, and more in demand than ever.”
Ramona knew Dolly meant well—the landlady had always had a soft spot for the aspiring actress—but this was the sort of remark that generally provoked a long self-pitying rant from Jackie about how time didn’t stand still, how her very identity was in question, how disoriented and despairing she felt.
As Jackie took a breath and opened her mouth, Ramona interjected, “Mrs. DeWitt’s daughter can’t be Ilsa, not unless Mrs. D. got pregnant when she was in her late forties. This mystery daughter must already be a mature woman herself.”
“Why, you’re right!” Dolly laughed, a little self-consciously. “I guess I’ve been picturing the DeWitt descendant as a young girl, you know, with huge hairbows, like in those old pictures in Mrs. DeWitt’s scrapbook.
“You’re an orphan!” Jackie looked at Ramona with awe. “What if…”
“I’m not that mature,” Ramona fished a scrap of paper from one pocket of her plaid pants and pulled a pencil from the other. “Let’s figure this out. When do we think Mrs. DeWitt had this kid?” At Dolly’s helpless shrug, she declared, “Well, that’s our first order of business!”
This was the kind of logic problem Ramona enjoyed. Patiently she questioned Dolly, and scribbled notes: the pre-war boarding school years, the estrangement from her family, the years as a chanteuse in Berlin, “I’d guess she had her daughter in the early twenties?” Dolly hazarded.
“We’re not guessing, we’re establishing a date range,” reminded Ramona, writing busily.
Meanwhile Jackie, in a hazy counterpoint was listing off all the orphans in their circle. “Isn’t Lon adopted? And what about Arlene, that creepy girl who lived here in ’65 or ’66, around when I moved in? Pam has no family, right? And wasn’t Beverly raised by her aunt?” She clutched the arm of the wooden bench, her voice suddenly panicked. “Why are so many of us orphans? What must it mean?”
“It’s just coincidence,” Ramona tried to calm her paranoid paramour. “And Pamela’s got a family, they’re just not on speaking terms. Dolly, when did you say Mrs. DeWitt was born?”
“She said 1900,” Dolly replied, as Jackie muttered, “It’s just like in Village of the Damned, all those creepy kids…it must mean something…”
“But I always suspected she shaved a couple years off,” Dolly continued. To Jackie she said, “The Arms has always catered to castaways, kid—there’s no big conspiracy. Why, you were one yourself, once!”
Jackie leaned back, open-mouthed. “Am I Mrs. DeWitt’s heir?”
Her elders abandoned their attempts to reason with the loopy girl, as they calculated birthdate ranges and Ramona’s scrap of paper got covered with their figuring. The slant of the late afternoon sun cast half the garden in shadow and gilded Dolly’s bleached blond curls, as she leaned forward to peer at the paper. Above them unseen residents began to stir, starting preparations for their evening meals, the punctuation point of another empty day. From an apartment on the second floor came a thunk-thunk-thunk, as if someone was chopping carrots, or maybe hammering ice for a cocktail shaker. Maxie’s laugh floated out on the evening breeze, along with the smell of frying onions. A radio blared on and was turned down to a low buzz of news, which was drowned out by Terry’s voice calling, “Patsy honey, how do you feel about a salad?”
“Okay,” said Ramona finally. “Assuming Mrs. DeWitt did not have her out-of-wedlock child after becoming housemother at the Magdalena Arms in 1924, and based on calculating her fertility beginning between 1910-1915, given the uncertainty of her birthdate, we’re looking for a woman somewhere between the ages of 53 and 67.”
“Really? So old?” Dolly pulled the scribbled over scrap out of Ramona’s hand and peered at it. “’60% ROI,’” she read. “Mimimum start-up cost, $2 to $5k.” She wrinkled her brow. “I don’t see that date range.”
Ramona snatched the sheet back. “Those are about something else, never mind them. I’ll copy down all our calculations and pass them on to Pamela. She’s organizing things, you said?”
She’d intended to keep her new scheme quiet for a while, but it was too late.
“I know what that’s about,” Jackie stiffened. “Ramona wants to cash in on the cannabis boom and open her own shop!” There was a bitter edge to the comment that made Ramona wince.
“Well, good for you!” Dolly’s heartiness, Ramona knew, was only more fuel to Jackie’s resentment. The younger girl jumped to her feet.
“I’m going up,” she announced abruptly. “Capitalism is a big buzz kill!”
Dolly blinked fuzzily as the door slammed behind the irate actress. “What’d I say?”
Next: In the Night Kitchen
We return to the Millie’s wrestling match with her pork loin, as she descends to the deserted basement kitchen late at night and has an unexpected encounter.