Previously: Beverly returned from her shift at the hospital coughing that she’d caught Covid and certain tenants competed for nursing duty, while Laura made a mysterious phone call. In the uproar over Beverly, the quest for Mrs. DeWitt’s daughter is almost forgotten–except by the two civil servants.
Phyllis and Laura had agreed that, for safety’s sake, they would walk to the Department of Public Records instead of taking the bus. Together they set out briskly the morning following the nursing meeting in the garden. Both were silent for the first several blocks, preoccupied with their own thoughts. Phyllis was thinking, rather guiltily, that it was a relief to get away from the unrest in the Arms. She’d woken to the sound of Beverly hoarsely arguing with Lon.
“No! (cough cough) I’m not so far gone I can’t take my own temperature!”
Lon had soothed. “Well, I’ll just leave this tray then. There’s your thermos of hot ginger-water, another thermos of chicken broth, and a bowl of that bran-oat gruel you like.” They’d paused, and then receiving no response, added “I’ll check back in a couple—”
And this is just the first day of Beverly’s illness, thought Phyllis, her spirits sinking. She stole a glance at Laura, wondering if similar worries were making her companion so silent and serious.
Laura was thinking of her phone call with a growing sense of unease. Yesterday it had seemed like the right thing to do, but as news of Beverly’s obstreperous resistance to all the would-be nurses trickled through the Arms grapevine, she began to have doubts. Her interference now seemed rash, ill-advised. If Audrey actually shows up, Laura thought gloomily, it’ll be just like throwing gasoline on a smoldering fire!
Determined to put the matter from her mind, she looked about her. The social scientist hadn’t been anywhere except the grocery store for weeks and she was struck by the number of people running and walking, sitting on their steps, or working in garages open to the street.
“Look,” Laura indicated as discreetly as possible, a young woman in gym attire, who seemed to be performing some complicated calisthenics, jumping on and off a small stool she’d placed in the middle of the sidewalk. “Everything that was inside is outside.”
She wondered if this was a metaphor for Bay City’s mental state. The neurotic behavior formerly hidden from public view was now made manifest. Laura wished there was a way to study this psychological phenomenon properly, to convert these unsettling observations into so many data points. Instead she asked Phyllis quizzically, “Will that be us in another few weeks?”
Phyllis eyed the flushed, panting woman, beads of sweat standing out on her forehead, and detoured them into the street. “It better not be,” she said. “Do you know how widely sweat droplets can spread during vigorous exercise?”
The statistician’s single-minded focus on numbers, quantities, scientific studies with verifiable results, had its usual soothing effect on Laura, and she listened to Phyllis expound on sweat radii and average viral loads like a child listening to a favorite book.
As they approached the Bay City’s business district, the streets grew emptier. Tall office towers rose up on either side, eerily quiet. They passed Gruneman’s; a mesh gate had been pulled down in front of the revolving doors and padlocked. In the display windows, the blank faced mannequins were frozen in the same spring fashions they’d been dressed in back in February.
“It’s like a ghost town,” Laura murmured.
“It certainly makes you think about alternative land use!” Phyllis agreed, her eyes darting about.
The statistician sensed that her colleague was in the grip of a disorienting unease, but the spectacle of the city stunned into stillness filled Phyllis with an odd sense of euphoria. If the such a powerful urban machine can be halted, then anything is possible!
With the ease of long familiarity, the two Bay City bureaucrats passed City Hall and turned down a narrow alley, a short cut to the side entrance of the Social Services Administration building. Normally the squat steel and glass structure was a bustling beehive of bureaucracy, but today there was only a masked guard at a desk inside the door. They flashed their city badges and walked through a labyrinth of long empty corridors, the only sound their echoing footsteps, before finally arriving at a door with the word “RECORDS” painted in gold on its pebbled glass window.
Laura tapped briskly on the glass, and after a pause the door swung open, and a woman a little older peered at them suspiciously over glasses that were attached to a chain around her neck.
“There you are,” she said to Laura, ignoring Phyllis completely. The words came out from behind a medical grade paper mask. Laura’s friend must be well-connected, Phyllis thought.
“Hello Florence, are we late?” Laura followed Florence into a large dim room filled with rows and rows of filng cabinets, and Phyllis trailed behind. She had a feeling Florence was miffed she was there, for some reason.
“You wanted births, right?” Again Florence addressed Laura as if Phyllis was invisible. “You need to go to Room 2B, just follow the right hand aisle all the way back. Remember, don’t take anything out of the drawers. Mark it with this,” she handed Laura a stack of red file dividers of stiff cardboard, “And then come find me. You have until 2:30. Then I lock up.”
“Two-thirty…but I thought,” Laura began
“Reduced hours,” Florence said tersely.
“Of course,” Laura said, “I understand. I—we really appreciate your help.”
“Yes, thank you so much,” Phyllis interjected a little timidly.
“Well,” Florence sniffed. “I owe you Laura, and I always pay my debts!” She turned away and retreated to a desk in the corner, whose lamp cast a pool of light around it. Phyllis followed Laura down the right-hand aisle. She could only wonder what bureaucratic favors Laura had traded to gain them access to the pandemic shuttered stacks of the Public Records Department!
“I wish I’d brought a flashlight,” Laura muttered, as they made their way down the aisle and the shadows grew darker. “I forgot that all Bay City Departments are under the new frugality regulations.”
“I have a penlight in my purse,” Phyllis paused to retrieve the useful tool she always carried and switch it on. The narrow beam illuminated a door marked 2B. She wondered if that’s why Laura’s friend was so touchy—if they’d reduced her hours as well as electricity usage.
Room 2B was small and windowless, lined with narrow drawered cabinets like card catalogs. A sign hung overhead:
“Let’s divide up the list Ramona made,” Laura pulled from her purse the list of Mrs. DeWitt’s aliases and pseudonyms, “Here, I can just tear it—”
Then the door whooshed closed behind Phyllis and the room was plunged into darkness.
“Oh dear!” Phyllis played the penlight over the wall, searching for a light switch. “I didn’t realize…I’m afraid we’ll have to turn on the overheads, frugality or not!”
Laura’s voice came out of the dark, a few feet in front of her, “I’ve dropped the list of pseudonyms!”
“Don’t worry—” Phyllis stabbed at the floor with the feeble penlight, wishing she’d had room in her purse for a full-fledged flashlight. The beam wobbled and darted, glinting on the metal cabinets, highlighting the gray linoleum, and discovering Laura’s pennyloafers before landing on a white patch that proved to be the piece of fallen paper.
Phyllis bent to pick it up but found herself clutching Laura’s wrist. Her brain told her to drop the warm, soft flesh like a hot potatoe, but instead it was the penlight that fell from her nerveless grasp and rolled away across the floor. She groped and found Laura’s other hand. It was a wondrous sensation, the touch of someone else’s skin, feeling the faint pulse in Laura’s wrist. Something began to rise from deep within Phyllis, like sap in a sugar maple. Unbidden, a memory from long ago came back to the social scientist, of a professor writing on a chalk board in a far away classroom, Man is a gregarious animal.
Gregarious or not, Laura should be leaping back, away from Phyllis, putting the requisite six feet between them. But she wasn’t. She was still in the dark, her breath coming fast.
“You know Laura,” Phyllis’s voice was husky, “I’ve had a test, to prepare for the new in-person protocol. It was negative.”
“But I haven’t!” Now Laura did try to pull away, half-heartedly.
“I don’t care,” said Phyllis, just before their lips found each other in the dark.
Next: Have the conscientious civil servants finally thrown caution to the winds? When they detach from their fateful lip-lock and turn their attention to the files, they make an unexpected discovery.