Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XXV

Previously: Nurse Beverly caught Covid. The hunt for Mrs. DeWitt’s missing daughter was struck by a slowdown. Phyllis kissed Laura, after a decade long crush, and Ramona and Jackie’s slow drift apart turned into a serious spat.

Faithful Readers: The serial management apologizes for last week’s posting hiatus, which was due to the world briefly becoming too much for the writing staff. We return now to our weekly schedule, in time to celebrate Post 25, our silver anniversary!

Simmering in Place

On the fifth floor, in apartment 502, Kay blew a series of excercises on her clarinet—scales, arpeggios, long tones, triplets. The notes climbed up and down, in a rhythm that seemed tuned to Beverly’s coughing.

Beverly lay in bed in apartment 503, weakly tugging the white sheets and floral coverlet smooth as her chest heaved with another coughing fit. She couldn’t abide wrinkled bedclothes.

Still hacking, she took the thermometer out of her mouth and peered at it through eyes bleary with fatigue. Leaning on one elbow, she turned to draw a dot and shaky line on the fever chart, propped on her nightstand. 103.3, and still climbing.

A floorboard creaked outside her door and the prone nurse tensed. Then came a gentle tap at her door, and Lon’s muffled voice: “Do you—”

“I’ve told you a dozen times to let me be!”

“—want more hot water?” Lon finished.

“No! Now go away!”

On the other side of the door, Lon looked down at the tray they carried. It was laid with a linen napkin and filled with china dishes: a covered bowl that contained steaming oatmeal, thin enough to slide down an invalid’s throat; a pitcher of cream, a ramekin of raisins, another of brown sugar, a plate with a freshly poached egg on lightly buttered wheat toast, and a big glass of grapefruit juice. All rejected, sight unseen. The Calypso’s former medical officer had never encountered such a recalcitrant patient.

Beverly’s overpowering concern was containing the contagion, and she absolutely refused to be nursed. She claimed she had plenty of food in her kitchen, and didn’t need the meals Dolly dished up. She said she could take her own temperature. She said she didn’t need any cold washclothes or hot compresses. The only aid she’d accepted was the big thermos of hot water, and Lon suspected she would boil water herself to refill it, now that it was inside her studio.

Lon crossed the hall and tapped on apartment 501. “Phyllis,” they called, “want some breakfast?”

In 501, Phyllis was staring at her computer screen without even seeing the graph of data that filled it. She’d pushed earplugs deep into each ear to muffle Kay’s clarinet and Beverly’s cough, but it was more difficult to muzzle her memories. Oblivious to her visitor, she relived the records room kiss with Laura for the umpteenth time: the rush of pleasure as their mouths met; the disappointment when they disengaged; the horror and shame when Laura backed away. Ecstasy disappointment, horror. Pleasure, pain, shame. The decrescendo repeated over and over, a nightmarish echo of Kay’s clarinet exercises.

Dimly Phyllis registered a distant tapping noise and came back to the present with a start. She pulled out an earplug and listened. The tapping had stopped. But maybe…she leaped up and tore open the door, filled with the irrational hope that she would discover Laura waiting outside.

The hallway was empty.

**********

Lon carried the tray into the fourth floor loft, feet sinking into the carpet as he traversed the dim living area with the couch and bar cart and then through to the sparkling kitchen. To his surprise, Maxie was out of bed already, sitting in the orange canvas butterfly chair on the rear balcony, contemplating the distant downtown skyline.

“Interested in a bowl of oatmeal?” Lon put down the tray on the gleaming marble countertop.

“Ha!” said Maxie. She loathed oatmeal. “Is Beverly eating anything at all?”

“I hope so.” Lon came to lean on the railing. In silence the pair listened to Kay’s clarinet above, repeating the same trill over and over, like a maddened song sparrow.

“You’re not social distancing,” Maxie observed.

“No point,” said Lon. “Beverly hasn’t opened the door except to grab the thermos.”

“So you might as well give up the hair salon sublet and go back to the roof.” 

“I’ll keep it handy for another two weeks.” Lon smiled as they added, “Jackie’s on the roof.”

“No!” 

“Yes.”

Maxie sighed and stretched. “This whole building is going bonkers.”

**********

On the third floor, in apartment 301, Laura typed an email. 

Because the available housing stuck is limited—

She frowned and changed stuck to stock.

She was the one who was stuck, not Bay City housing, which wasn’t all that limited, if you considered the empty units whose former inhabitants had fled the city.

Maybe she should brainstorm new policy recommendations based on the changing land-use demographics. It would be helpful to map these changes, color code them even. Clearly a job for a statistician—

Stop drumming up excuses to visit Phyllis! she scolded herself. Not until she could make up her mind how she felt about her upstairs neighbor. And the kiss they’d shared. And whether the crush she’d carried for so long was waxing or waning, or what.

It was queer how harried and helpless a girl could feel, just sitting in her quiet studio apartment, trying to get out a work email. Laura’s unconscious kept putting words to Kay’s distant scales: Do-you-want-to-kiss-her-a-gain? Then back down: Do-you-want-to-stop-this-non-sense?

She lifted her hands to the keyboard and took a deep breath. Funds must be found—

Down the hall in apartment 302, Sylvia grumbled throatily, “Has everyone forgotten the hunt for the missing DeWitt daughter besides you and me?”

She was sitting at the kitchen table, surrounded by stacks of papers. A half-emptied box was on the chair next to her. A TV perched on the countertop next to the sink, playing Lucille Ball soundlessly. A bowl of brioche dough puffing up under plastic wrap was on the stove, crowded by flat plate filled with tofu marinating in soy sauce. Sylvia took a drag on her cigarette and crushed the butt in the already overflowing ashtray, adding, “and by you and me, I mean mostly me!”

Terry looked up from the Bay City Reporter recipe page. “I’m sorry, honey,” she began, then stopped as her girlfriend lit another cigarette. “Sylvia!” she admonished, “think of Patty breathing all this smoke!”

Sylvia blew a leisurely smoke ring. “I talked to her, hon. She understands her mother has needs. She’s stuffed a towel in the crack under the door.

Terry looked dubious, but shrugged. “Well, all right.”

Sylvia fished another envelope out of the box on the chair which bore the label CORRESPONDENCE — MISC. She flicked it open with a red-polished fingernail and squinted at the old-ashioned engraved card that fell out. “Maybe this is means something—a birth announcement for a gal named Maud.”

Terry paused to ponder. “But you wouldn’t announce the birth of your own kid to yourself, would you?”

“I’ll put it in the ‘ask Dolly’ pile,” Sylvia decided, adding the announcement to an already towering stack of paper.

**********

On the second floor, landlady Dolly had just knocked on apartment 203. The door opened and new tenant Millie, still adjusting her mask, peered suspiciously over the green-and-gray patterned fabric. 

“Yes?”  

Undaunted by the chilly greeting, Dolly held up a basket. “I was down in the kitchen, whipping up a batch of pecan buns, and I thought you might be interested.” The landlady folded back the gingham napkin draped over the top, disclosing a pile of sugar-glazed pinwheels, pocked with pecans, glistening temptingly.

The new tenant swallowed. “No thank you,” she said brusquely. “I’m being extra cautious about contagion, given the case of Covid upstairs.”

She started to close the door, but Dolly wasn’t done. “Not to worry!” the hearty ex-housemother reassured her susicious tenant. “I was gloved and gowned like a surgeon while I baked! Besides,” she lowered her voice a few decibels, “a little bird told me your larder’s kind of bare.”

Millie’s dark eyebrows went up and then came down. Her greenish-brown eyes narrowed. “I’ve quite enough to eat, thank you!” she snapped, and shut the door.

Millie stood a moment in her studio’s entryway, biting her lip and wishing she hadn’t lost her cool and been so cantakerous. It was this cursed caffeine withdrawal that had caused her to lose control! She dragged herself through her days as if in a fog, punctuated only by grinding headaches.

But anyway, what business of hers is the state of my larder? Milly argued with herself. She was doing just fine. She had three potatoes and that dented can of fruit, not to mention a large quantity of that pork loin pilaf she’d improvised with the other ingredients.

And if her pilaf wasn’t half as appealing as those pecan buns, that was nobody’s business either.

After staring at the closed door blankly, Dolly wheeled around and went across the hall to Angelo in apartment 201. Angelo always appreciated a fresh-baked bun! As she knocked, her ears picked up the pulsating music coming from inside, and she wondered if Angelo had company. She put her ear to the door and heard a woman calling out numbers in an encouraging tone: “Three! Four! Five! Six!”

Huh?

The music stopped and Angelo opened the door. He was panting, and sweat gleamed on his round, cherubic face. His hair flopped over a terrycloth headband, and despite the nippy early May weather, he wore a t-shirt and pair of very small shorts.

“Brought you some pecan buns,” Dolly began, but before she’d finished, Angelo was shaking his head. “No, no! Take them away. I’m on a diet, Dolly!” 

It had never been so hard for Dolly to get rid of a batch of buns before. This Covid thing was making everyone nuts!

“Not even one?” She couldn’t help wheedling.

“Don’t tempt me!” Angelo turned his head away and flung up his hands as if protecting himself from an attacker. 

“All right, all right!” Dolly backed away, grumbling, “You know, this recipe won a blue ribbon in the Bay County fair in 1970!”

“How’s Beverly?” Angelo asked wiping his face and ignoring Dolly’s past prize.

Dolly’s gesture of despair nearly dislodged the buns from the basket. “She doesn’t want to eat anything either! And lord knows, Lon has tried!”

Angelo chewed his lip. Unlike Milly, he’d answered the door maskless. “We’ve got to get her to accept some help!” 

“Yes…well, if you have any bright ideas…” Dolly left Angelo to his exercise and went down to apartment 202.

This time the door opened wide and Ramona invited her old friend inside. “Mmm, pecan buns!” she exclaimed. “Come into the kitchen, I’ll make some coffee.” 

“Where’s Jackie?” Dolly asked, glancing around.

“On the roof,” Ramona replied blithely. “She’s in a pet and she’s slept up there the past two nights. I think she’s using Lon’s little camp bed.”

“But–but aren’t you worried?” Dolly asked. She couldn’t help finding Ramona’s nonchalance rather unfeeling, in the face of poor Jackie’s misery. 

Ramona smiled sardonically as she put the kettle on, as if she guessed Dolly’s disapproval. She sat down and sliced a cinnamon bun, buttering one half. “Nope. Not worried. I’m done playing nursemaid to that drama queen. A little dose of discomfort on the roof might bring her to her senses! Anyway,” she added, as Dolly started to protest, “we have more important things to discuss. I’ve been sorting through Mrs. DeWitt’s collection of objets d’art, and there are quite a few things of value. Her missing daughter is going to inherit a lot more than the copyrights to a few dusty poems! It’s not just the Meissen figurine—which, incidentally, I prevented my new neighbor down the hall from pilfering—”

“Do you mean Millie? Why, she wouldn’t even accept a single pecan bun!” Dolly protested. “And Lon tells me she’s living on food bank groceries!”

“Well, it makes sense she’d snag a Meissen she saw sitting out in the hall, then, wouldn’t it?” Ramona got up as the tea kettle shrilled and poured the boiling water into the coffee pot. “But never mind Milly now. My point is, we have to get serious about searching for this missing heiress. I know Beverly’s illness has distracted everyone, but we can’t all nurse her, and from what Maxie says, she’s not even letting Lon do much. Cream?”

Dolly nodded distractedly, and Ramona dolloped some in her coffee before handing her the cup. Dolly took a sip and then said, “It’s not nursing Beverly that’s caused the slowdown, it’s that Lois and Pam are back to sheltering across town. They were the ones pulling together all the pieces, and pushing people to do their tasks, that is before they decided it was too risky…”

The doorbell chimed in the distance, and Ramona asked, “expecting anyone?”

“No,” Dolly heaved herself to her feet. “It’s just another cursed package from that nefarious company! If only tenants would attempt to shop locally!”

Her grumbling trailed away as she headed out the door and down the stairs. Ramona munched on her buttered bun and sipped coffee, poring over the list of Mrs. DeWitt’s valuables she’d drawn up. Then the sound of distant voices exclaiming excitedly pulled the entrepreneur to her feet and out into the hall. She leaned over the second floor landing and looked at the trio clustered under the chandelier. Ramona recognized dark-haired Lois, but who was that red-headed wraith beside her?

“I didn’t know where to turn,” Lois half-sobbed.

But before she could explain her predicament, the door chimed again. Dolly swung it wide, revealing an imposing woman in a blue uniform, with a black leather bag over one arm. An enormous red-brown afro concealed much of her face from Ramona’s angle, but the interested observer caught the white flash of a surgical mask and she heard the newcomer declare as she strode inside, “I’ve come to take care of Beverly!”

Next: What happened to Pamela? And who’s the new nurse at the Magdalena Arms?

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