Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XXIV

Previously: Phyllis and Laura left the uproar over Beverly behind briefly, in order to visit the Department of Public Records, courtesy of Laura’s connection Florence. However their search for Mrs. DeWitt’s daughters birth certificate took second place to a moment of forbidden pandemic passion!

Public Records II

The shock of Phyllis’s lips in the velvety darkness of the records room muffled the practical problems Laura knew she should point out. It wasn’t only the physical fact of Phyllis’s lips on hers but the astounding fact that Phyllis, careful, protocol-conscious Phyllis, had thrown caution to the winds!

Laura found it at once disturbing reckless—and deeply romantic. The contradictory reactions seemed to fuse into a dangerous thrill that made the kiss more unsettling than any she’d experienced.

As long as Phyllis’s lips were pressed to hers, Laura was in thrall to this heady delight. But the two women had to breathe, and in the time it took to draw apart, panting, reason rushed in, filling the gap between them like an invisible wedge.

One minute their mouths were joined as if magnetized; the next, the two civil servants sprang apart, as if pushed.

“Phyllis, we can’t!” Laura panted.

“You’re right! I’m sorry!”

“It’s not that—”

“I didn’t mean to—”

“It’s just—”

“I’m so sorry!”

Laura felt her way to the door and found the light switch. The fluorescents flickered on and the greenish-yellow light gave Phyllis a sickly pallor as she stood, still repeating her apologies. As light flooded the room, the stricken statistician blinked, and stuttered to a stop. She stooped to pick up the sheet of Mrs. DeWitt’s aliases from the floor, while Laura retrieved the pen light. There was an awkward moment as each woman tried to hand the other the object they held. Finally the exchange was made, and Phyllis stowed the penlight in her purse, while Laura carefully ripped the list of names in half.

“Top or bottom?” Laura essayed a light-hearted tone, then bit her lip. Phyllis flushed.

“Either, it doesn’t matter. I mean—”

Laura thrust the top half at Phyllis and the two colleagues sped to opposite corners of the file room.

Laura headed towards the W’s. The unsettled civil servant stared unseeingly at her names: Madame d’Esprit, Hattie White, while a dozen different notions caromed around her head like billiard balls after a break. She pulled out the W’s and realized after staring blankly for some number of seconds that the W names were further subdivided by year. The range of possible birth-years for Mrs. DeWitt’s missing daughter, 1910-1924 as calculated by Ramona, was at the bottom of her half of the sheet.

Laura looked over her shoulder, wondering if she should remind Phyllis of the date range. But Phyllis was already hunched over a low drawer, rapidly flipping through birth records. Laura faced front and forced herself to do the same.

What had prompted her panicked reaction? Was it fear of Covid? Or something else entirely?

Laura tried to analyze the moment of madness objectively, as if it were a housing unit she’d been instructed to evaluate. She wasn’t really afraid of catching Covid from Phyllis; but the shock of breaking a societal taboo, which had assumed a daunting solidity in such a short time, still thrummed through her. That must be why her fingers trembled as she flicked over another birth certificate.

If not Covid, why had she pulled away? After all, her crush on Phyllis had been an unquestioned fact of Laura’s life for years—you’d think that this first physical expression of affection from Phyllis would fill her with rapture, not confusion. 

Perhaps that was the source of her panic. After all, after years of yearning, an actual kiss was quite a shock to the system!

Or had she simply been influenced by Florence, and the way she’d cold-shouldered Phyllis? Florence was militant, and Laura could guess what she was thinking: That Laura was wasting her time with a white girl.

1912: White, Abigail; White, Caroline; White, Elizabeth; White, Hester.

No, Laura dismissed Florence and her politics as a motivation. That wasn’t what made her jump back like Phyllis was some kind of leper. She liked and respected Phyllis–they were friends, if nothing else. Besides, Laura believed in revolution from within; maybe now she was merely assistant to the Head of Housing, but she planned to climb much higher in Bay City Bureaucracy, and Phyllis was a useful ally as well as a respected colleague…

The ambitious bureaucrat’s fingers froze on 1913’s White, Beatrice. Was she using Phyllis? Clinging to her old crush as an excuse to keep Phyllis in her corner? 

No, no! Laura took a deep breath. She couldn’t be that calculating. She respected and admired Phyllis. She found their encounters in the basement kitchen comforting. And when Phyllis pushed her gold-rimmed glasses up her nose, it gave her a funny feeling in the pit of her stomach…

Suddenly she recalled feeling Phyllis’s glasses pressing into her cheek, and her face grew hot. She replayed the kiss in her head as she thumbed through Whites from 1914 to 1922, without coming to any definite conclusions. She jumped a foot when Phyllis touched her gently on the shoulder.

“I’m sorry!” The statistician stepped back.

“Phyllis, for heaven’s sake, stop apologizing!” her confused colleague snapped. Then immediately muttered, “I’m sorry, I was just startled.”

The truth was, she’d been remembering the forceful feel of Phyllis’s hand on the back of her head, and wondering what might have happened if the older woman hadn’t been so quick to pick up Laura’s cue.

“I just found something, and thought we should ask your friend Florence to make a copy,”  Phyllis said, her voice low. 

“You found one of the pseudonyms?” Laura exclaimed.

“Not quite,” said Phyllis. She handed Laura a birth certificate from 1924, for Maud DeWitt, daughter of Harold and Georgine Abernathy DeWitt. Laura looked at Phyllis puzzled.

“It occurred to me that this might be a clue to Mrs. DeWitt’s family,” Phyllis explained. “We know Mrs. DeWitt came from money; we think she lived on a large estate, somewhere outside Bay City, before she was estranged from her family. Terry and Sylvia were assigned to comb through her early correspondence, but they haven’t gotten very far. See the address?” She reached out to tap the birth certificate. “In Munsee Bay. There’s a lot of old money in Munsee. Maybe this Harold is a brother or a cousin.”

“Of course,” said Laura. “We should probably make copies of all the DeWitt birth records.” 

“The phonebook might be more efficient,” Phyllis pointed out. “And of course we’ll want to focus on certain years.” Her glasses were steaming up from the mask covering her mouth and nose and she took them off and wiped them absentmindedly on her blouse.

Laura was distracted from the find by the gold glints in Phyllis’s brown eyes. The statistician really was an attractive woman; Laura couldn’t understand why most people considered Phyllis plain.

Seeing Phyllis looked at her quizzically, Laura realized that she’d been staring. “Yes, well, I’ll just go take this to Florence,” she said, striving for her normal manner.

But she had a feeling her attempt had fallen flat.

Next: Where has Jackie disappeared to? Will Ramona distract herself with new tenant Millie? With Lon camping out in Angel’s Hair Salon, won’t Angelo feel even more confined? And what the heck was Laura’s mysterious phone call all about?

4 thoughts on “Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XXIV

  1. I’m with the characters: it’s both romantic and terrible that they kissed! However, now that we’re so far into the pandemic, past sheltering-in-place (an active shooter term…), my tolerance for whims (at least in my own life; it’s fun in fiction!) has decreased like crazy.

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