Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XVI

In previous episodes, unemployed coiffeur Angelo gave Lon a clandestine trim–only to be accidentally discovered by the almost all the occupants of the Magdalena Arms. At the end of his financial rope, the frustrated stylist demanded a rent reduction on his closed salon “Angel Hair” from landlady Dolly. Later that night, his neighbor Millie spots him coming home…drunk?

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.

Angelo Has A Headache

Three cocktails was two too many, Angelo realized, as he managed to lock his studio door. The usually gay apartment seemed full of sinister wavering shadows as he stumbled across the room to the bathroom. The bullfighter poster menaced him from the wall and he barked his shin on the edge of his travertine marble coffee table, while his couch-bed, still wearing its daytime dressing of oversized raw-silk pillows, brooded in the corner. In the dark, the eggplant-colored upholstery turned black and gave it a somber air. It was as if his lovingly-decorated apartment was mirroring his own mood. 

The happy-go-lucky hairdresser had never been a heavy drinker. Not for Angelo the easy escape of alcohol, even in times of hardship. But tonight, when he’d met Phil and Javier in Phil’s garage for a clandestine cocktail, he’d overdone it. Maybe Phil poured with a heavier hand than the bartender at the Knock Knock Lounge, their usual meeting place. Maybe Angelo had gulped his gin fizz faster out of nervousness. Certainly, the whole atmosphere had fueled his unease—perching on a rickety folding chair around a makeshift table of plywood on sawhorses, surrounded by shelves filled with anti-freeze, old paint cans, broken fans, odd bits of wood and other building materials. The whole shabby hodge-podge was lit by a single bare bulb from the low ceiling, and it all made Angelo feel like some sort of counter-culture conspirator, when he merely craved some male companionship.

Yes, he loved the Magdalena Arms girls, he enjoyed his status as the only boy in the building, a sort of brother to a dozen sisters; but ever since the shutdown cut Angelo off from his nights out and the male companionship he’d always found essential, the situation had begun to sour. Even his favorites at the Arms had started to irritate him.

Take Jackie—she’d been his best friend since they met in the Meyer Method acting class almost a decade ago. She was the reason Angelo was even at the Arms, wangling him a room back when the boarding house was still women-only—officially anyway. Without her he’d have been on the street. 

Yet these days he dodged back into his studio when he spotted Jackie moping down the hallway. Yes, it was awful her show had closed, and her career had ground to a halt. But didn’t she realize that was everyone’s sad story? Didn’t she see how lucky she was, having no money worries? Ramona would keep a roof over Jackie’s head and brown rice in her pot (Jackie had gone macrobiotic), not to mention all the joints a girl could smoke and still be standing. Compared to many, she was sitting pretty!

While his situation…Angelo turned on the bathroom light and splashed cold water on his face. Dolly had hemmed and hawed when he blurted out his demand earlier, and said she’d “let him know.” Even if Dolly agreed to the rent reduction for the salon, he’d still have no money coming in, and it was a race to see which would last longer, unemployment benefits or the city’s shutdown. He, for one, wasn’t inclined to put his money on benefits beating confinement. 

Yes, He could give Jackie an earful about having your career come to a screeching halt. He’d been secretly thinking of expanding, and had even inspected a shop on the edge of the developing Dockside district that was for sale. He’d figured he could swing the payments by renting half the chairs. But now, instead of exponentially increasing the heads of hair he styled, he was pounced on by those self-appointed pandemic police, Phyllis and Laura, for giving one friend a basic trim!

“Those—those bureaucrats!” he burst out, shaking his fist and glaring at the ceiling, as if his glower could penetrate to Laura’s studio overhead, and Phyllis’s, two floors up. 

His glance fell on his reflection in the mirror, holding a toothbrush and toothpaste, a grimace contorting his face. The image was a stranger’s. He peered more closely. Had the pandemic aged him already? Where were the boyish good looks that had secured his popularity at the Knock Knock only a few months ago? Where was the cherubic smile that made some men pinch his cheeks and often led to much more pleasurable pinching? Was he going to lose his ability to attract male attention on top of everything else?

Angelo scrubbed at his teeth, drank a full glass of water, and donned his pajamas before at last falling into bed. Only to struggle back up, when he landed on the eggplant cushions. Sitting up, he lobbed the cushions at the ladderbacked chairs on the other side of the coffee table, then leaned over to pull his sheet and blanket from the antique étagère’s drawer. Flapping them open over the couchbed as best he could, he lay back down without even attempting to tuck them in. 

The room spun dizzyingly around him before finally slowing and steadying. The sheets twined around his legs like seaweed, but after a futile kick or two, he gave up, too exhausted to care.

Exhausted, yet wide awake. A jumble of images from the day played in his head like a family slide show sped up: Lon’s head underneath his scissors, as he carefully trimmed her cowlick. The way Dolly’s eyes had darted away from his when he demanded a rent reduction. Phil’s bald pate reflecting the bare bulb as he shook the silver cocktail shaker in the shadowy garage. 

Phil had been bald for years, but thinking of him reminded Angelo of an article he’d seen in Hair Today, about the run on electric clippers, and how many men were simply shaving their heads completely as a solution to this personal grooming problem. What kind of future was there for a hairstylist in a world gone bald?

Angelo’s own head was pounding, as if lice with metal clogs were dancing the fandango just where his cranium came to a point. It felt like no hangover he’d had before. A bad headache—wasn’t that an early sign, a symptom of the dread illness? 

What if Phyllis and Laura were right, and he’d risked his health to give Lon a haircut?

After all, Lon was hardly a model of adherence to health department guidelines. Confinement was foreign to her nature. More than once Angelo had spied her through the filmy curtains that hung in the salon’s streetside window, on her way out of the Arms. She’d come down the steps, looking both ways as if fearful of being followed. And she always had a bulky bag slung over one shoulder. Holding what? Angelo didn’t think she was shopping. She’d be gone for hours at a time and when she returned Angelo could swear that her hair was damp, still showing the tell-tale marks of a comb. He’d have sworn she was swimming somewhere, but how was that possible with all the pools closed?

And if not Lon, what about Javi? Angelo’s old friend had confided to the schnockered stylist, as they left Phil’s and walked the dark empty streets together, that one of his cousins had been stricken with the virus. Angelo had made shocked, sympathetic noises, but he’d forgotten to ask if Javi had been in contact with this afflicted cousin. And unlike Angelo, Javi still saw his family, at least once a week—

Angelo put his hand on his forehead. It felt hot. He sat up, and the room swirled around him again, like an oceanliner in a storm. Unsteadily, he swung his feet over the edge of the couchbed and felt for his slippers, then shuffled to the bathroom.

He was out of aspirin, and he couldn’t find his thermometer. He pushed aside aging bottles of cough syrup and pepto-bismal, tins of bandaids and ointment for bee stings. His thermometer had to be somewhere

Breathe, the increasingly anxious beautician told himself as he rummaged the medicine cabinet. Just breathe. He breathed in deeply, and something caught in his throat, provoking a spasm of coughing. Staggering out of the bathroom, he fumbled at the front door, tugging the doorknob with increasing agitation before remembering to turn the bolt. Jackie and Ramona would surely loan him some aspirin, and perhaps allay his fears. They were old friends enough that they wouldn’t mind him waking them—

In the quiet of the dim hallway he heard the stairs creak, and turned, trepidatious. Who else would be up when all the Arms were asleep? 

Relief flooded him as he spotted Beverly, tiredly trudging up the stairs at the end of her nursing shift at Bay City General. 

“Beverly!” He whispered loudly, tiptoing towards her. “Can I borrow some aspirin? Also, how long does it take—”

“Stop!” Beverly flung out a warning hand. “I’m sick!” 

“Sick?” Angelo repeated stupefied.

“I’ve got it!”

Next: In the Night Kitchen – Part 2

Millie tries to cook up a midnight batch of salt pork and is interrupted by an unexpected intruder.

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