Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XVIII

Previously: Angelo ventured out to a clandestine cocktail party and returned tipsy and tense. When his  hangover and headache turned into a full -blown attack of hypochondria, he ventured out in search of aspirin, only to find the nurse on the fifth floor has caught the dreaded flu.

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 silence, Dolly and Angelo contemplated the sign on Apartment 503’s door.

Do Not Enter
Covid-19 Patient

“She even drew a skull and crossbones, like on a bleach bottle,” Angelo murmured softly.

It was the middle of the night. Despite Beverly’s ordering him back to bed, Angelo had followed the newly-afflicted nurse to her apartment on the fifth floor and then stood outside the door, listening to the faint rasps of coughing within, wondering what to do next. Beverly had refused everything—food, water, medicine—reminding her neighbor with exhausted asperity that she was a nurse. “It just has to run its course,” she’d said, before closing the door with finality.

Angelo hadn’t been reassured. Beverly had lived in the Arms for ten years, as long as he had. In fact, he, Jackie and Beverly had all arrived at the Magdalena Arms the same year; the older residents still referred to them sometimes as “the kids.” They’d seen other tenants come and go, and they remembered when the garden out back was a scraggly patch of weeds, when breakfast was included with your rent, when there was only one phone for the whole building. It didn’t matter that Angelo had few interests in common with the tall, serious nurse—she was family. 

So he’d woken Dolly, to tell her that the steadiest, the most practical of “the kids” had been laid low. Beverly, the health nut who lectured them on their drinking and never stopped pushing her bran muffins on everyone, who reassured you about alarming rashes in uncomfortable places without making a big deal of it, who always added vitamins when you came to her for aspirin.

And since the pandemic began spreading, they’d leaned on her even more. She was the Magdalena Arms’s source of scientific information, explaining the difference between a virus and a bacteria, not that Angelo could exactly recite the details back. She’d stopped early excesses of prevention, like when Terry was telling everyone to wash lettuce leaves in soap, or when Dolly wondered if she should be bleaching the books in the Lounge. Beverly had  pooh-poohed the quinine and other miracle cures, the way she’d once rolled her eyes at the fad diets Sylvia was always trying. 

Angelo glanced at Dolly and saw by her knit brows and the muscles working in her cheeks that similar thoughts were passing through the landlady’s head. Dolly always boasted to newcomers, “We have our own hairdresser with a shop on the first floor—discounts for all the Magdalena Arms girls— And of course, our own nurse on the fifth floor, better than any hotel doc!”

Now the hairdresser couldn’t style and the nurse was sick.

“Do you think she’s asleep?” Dolly wishispered.

Angelo listened intently for a few seconds. “I don’t hear her coughing.”

At the end of the corridor, Kay waved at them from the doorway of 502. “I made coffee,” she said low.

The demoralized pair shuffled back to Kay and Dolly’s apartment. On the threshhold, Angelo hesitated. “I shouldn’t come in—”

“I’ve opened all the windows,” said Kaye. “We’ll leave the door open and our masks on. This is kind of an emergency, isn’t it?”

Dolly collapsed on the couch, and Angelo perched uneasily across the room. He shook his head at the coffee, and asked for a glass of water. “And aspirin, maybe?” His head was pounding again. 

“We’ll have to organize her care,” said Dolly, after the first restorative sip. “Round the clock! Constant attention! I’ll phone the hospital and find out what the ideal invalid diet is. What’s the old saying, ‘feed a cold and hunger a colic?’ Or—well, a coddled egg for breakfast maybe, and some of that ginseng tea she likes. You can’t go wrong with a coddled egg. I’ll make up a tray.” 

“I’ll take it in to her,” Angelo said. “I live alone and if I get sick it’s just me. If you get sick it’s Kay too.”

Dolly looked startled. “That’s right,” she said after a moment. “I forgot about the contagion…But then how…maybe…” She knit her brows again. “How are we going to manage nursing and staying safe? The cooking part is easy.”

“You should make her some bran muffins, for breakfast,” Angelo told Dolly. “You know how Beverly is about bran.”

“You’re cooking too?” said a new voice.

They all turned. It was Lon, leaning against the open apartment doorway.

“Lon!” said Dolly. “What are you doing up?”

Lon shrugged. “I’m a light sleeper.” They looked around the circle, at Angelo perched on the plaid-covered club chair, which had been pushed next to an open window, Kay and Dolly huddled on the matching couch, the percolator on the low coffee table. “Why the coffee klatsch?”

The seated three exchanged glances: we can’t keep this a secret, and then Dolly broke the news. “Beverly’s sick, and she told Angelo it was Covid-19.” 

Lon gave a low whistle. “She would know.” 

Kay spoke up. “Maybe she’ll be one of the light cases, you know, nothing worse than a bad flu. She’s young, and lord knows she’s healthy.”

“She’ll still need nursing,” Dolly began.

“I can do that,” Lon volunteered.

“You!” Angelo exclaimed. He noticed a stray lock he’d missed over the Lon’s left ear, and his fingers itched to cut it even as he protested, “But what about Maxie? You can’t risk infecting her!” And if Maxie gets it, that’s it for all the Arms, he thought privately. We’d be one big sick ward!

“I have nursing experience,” said Lon, with lowkey stubbornness. “I was assistant medical officer aboard the Bossa Nova. Maxie can get along without me for a little while. I’ve been sleeping on the roof these last few nights anyway.” Lon added the last almost as an afterthought.

Angelo began “But—” thinking but what about your mysterious afternoon excursions? Kaye made a calming gesture, like a conductor calling for piu piano, and Dolly was saying, “The problem, as I see it, is the darned PPE suits,” when Lon held up their hand and looked over their shoulder. 

They all heard the hoarse whisper, “What on earth is going on?”

Lon turned back. “It’s Jackie.”

Next: Who will nurse Beverly? Are her friends motivated by pure selflessness, or simply a desire to escape pandemic ennui? How will the feverish nurse react to these bohemian Florence Nightingale’s? And are any tenants in the Arms actually asleep?

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