Previously: Jackie, the performer without an audience, took up residence on the Magdalena Arms roof, miffed at her longtime girlfriend’s focus on turning the pandemic to her financial advantage; Pamela’s crippling depression is barely affected by the exercise and bathing routine Lon has devised, and Millie mood suffers too, as extended caffeine deprivation turns her touchy and tearful by turns.
When Ramona woke up, stretched, and realized that she again had the double bed to herself, concern nibbled at the back of her mind like a persistent mouse.
It had been over a week since her high-strung actress girlfriend had stormed off in a fit of tearful fury. At the time Ramona had been fed up enough with Jackie’s moods to let her go. She’d figured Jackie would slink back to their shared one-bedroom sooner or later.
But the thwarted thespian had proved more stubborn than Ramona suspected. Camping had never been Jackie’s style, but according to reliable reports she’d slept outside on the Magdalena Arms roof ever since her one-woman walkout. And the prima donna persisted in her pet, even though the original point of her pique—the fact that Lon had been chosen over Jackie to care for Beverly—was no longer relevant now that Audley had displaced Lon as Beverly’s official nurse.
Ramona was beginning to suspect that the earlier outburst over who would tend Beverly had just been an excuse, and that she was the true target of Jackie’s resentment.
The abandoned entrepreneur sighed, threw off the bedcovers and rolled out of bed, into her slippers and robe. She padded to the kitchen and put the kettle on.
It was her day off from the dispensary, and after a week of managing lines, trying to match the right kind of cannabis to each customer, and listening to all the fears and anxieties that came veiled as inquiries—“My roomate’s probably been exposed and I’ve been having insomnia, what would you recommend?”—Ramon wanted nothing more than to relax with a pot of coffee and the morning paper. But visions of Jackie shivering on the roof made it hard to concentrate on the news as she breakfasted and scanned the headlines—“Health Department Warns Against Troubling Trend of Complacency”; “Weary SIPers Find Relief in Indoor Games”; “Field Hockey Players in Funk as Big Game Cancelled.”
Maybe she should have been more patient, she told herself, turning a page. The poor kid had been hit by hard luck, no two ways about it. Getting her first part in a legitimate production—the kind that paid for rehearsal time—and then having to watch the show get cancelled practically the minute she took her first curtain call.
On the other hand, The Seagull had closed—Ramona stopped to calculate—over two months ago now. Wasn’t it time to move on? And anyway, how was Ramona to blame for Jackie’s crushed dreams? She hadn’t started the pandemic. To Jackie she was a handy scapegoat, all the more so because the dispensary was flourishing and Ramona had a chance to finally make some real money. Ramona couldn’t help feeling a little miffed herself. How did the mopey mime think they were managing to pay rent and groceries? It wasn’t with Jackie’s long-gone rehearsal pay!
But by the time she’d finished skimming Mamie’s column (“Illicit House Parties Fueling Latest Surge?”), the mellow merchandiser had reverted to a more forgiving mood. She missed her headstrong honey; it was time to mend fences, let bygones be bygones.
Ramona pushed back her chair, and pushed the cats eye glasses firmly up her nose. She’d get dressed and visit the roof right now, olive branch in hand.
Relieved at the prospect of resolving their feud, Ramona hummed a little tune as she wrapped up the last pecan roll in a napkin. This would work better than an olive branch; Jackie had a sweet tooth.
While Ramona clambered up the fire escape, Maxie was tapping on the door to Apartment 203.
“Hello!” she said breezily, when the door cracked open and a pair of suspicious eyes over a homemade mask peered out. “I’m Maxie, your neighbor on the fourth floor. I would have stopped by to introduce myself sooner, but—” she waved an airy hand to indicate the pandemic and all its consequences. “Anyway, welcome to the building! Would you like a cappuccino?”
Millie blinked. “I don’t—” she began.
“Drink cappuccino?” Lon had warned her scruples-free girlfriend that the new girl was proud, and Maxie had arrived primed to overcome any resistance. “I find it too milky myself. How about an expressor? Or a double? Or maybe you prefer your coffee in a bowl, like the French? I’ve got viennese style here—dunkel oder hell, as they say! And there’s Moroccan too—”
Mesmerized, Millie opened the door wider. She saw that Maxie stood next to a chrome and glass cart, which was indeed covered with every form of coffee drink known to cosmopolitan caffeine fiends. Steam wafted up from the myriad pots and cups, a drip pot of white china, a silver pot with a long gracefully curving spout, a many-faceted geometric metal machina. The sight of the crowded cart and the overpowering aroma of caffeine dizzied the deprived documenter.
“See, with a side of condensed milk and a sugar cube to hold between your teeth, if that’s your style,” Maxie was continuing. “But be careful—if you’ve gone without, it can be a little like mainlining heroine after withdrawal!” She laughed gaily at her own analogy.
But Millie bristled. “You don’t really bring out this—this caffeine-filled welcome wagon for every newcomer! Was it that Lon who told you I was deprived? I don’t need charity!”
Maxie responded blithely, “Yes, Lon told me you had to cross coffee off your grocery list, and yes, it’s obvious you could do with a donation or two—couldn’t we all? But if it makes the coffee go down easier, think of it as a tryout for a job. There’s an opening at Kizirian’s Coffee Roastery—I know old Mr. Kizirian and I’m prepared to recommend you, but only if you’re qualified. Are you a full-fledged coffee fiend or just a dabbler in arabica robusta?”
“Arabica or robusta,” Millie corrected automatically. Her eyes roved the coffee cart like a starved refugee newly arrived at a Swedish smorgasbord. She felt possessed by an irrational force, which was lifting her hand and causing it to pour a dark liquid stream from a hammered copper pot into a gilt-edged demitasse cup that stood next to it. Millie watched her hand add a heaping spoonful of sugar and then she lifted the cup to her mouth a drank.
The caffeine hit her bloodstream like rocket fuel, igniting a reaction that moved through her body with deliciously explosive force. Millie rolled the faint grainyness of the brew on her tongue, and felt the last of the sugar melt in the back of her throat. She heard the birds twittering in the garden with crystal clarity, smelled the fragrance of the clematis, and it seemed she could feel the very roots of the garden plants vibrating their way into the earth.
“Armenian, excellent choice!” Maxie was saying somewhere. “I’ll tell Mr. Kizirian, he’ll be impressed!”
Millie drained the demitasse and shuddered. “It’s called Soorj,” she said. “Tell your Mr. Kizirian I’ve studied historic recipes for it! And although I trained as an archivist, and last worked at the Bay City Historical Society, I also have extensive experience in food service, and paid for my schooling by working in the college cafeteria!”
But Maxie’s attention had snagged on Millie’s first sentence. As the caffeine starved girl sampled the viennese coffee, before turning to the previously rejected cappuccino, Maxie exclaimed, “The Historical Society! What did you do there?”
“I was assistant archivist,” said Millie, eyeing the old-fashioned percolator at the bottom of the cart. “I evaluated old documents, from Bay City’s early European settlements, and sorted and preserved them.” Her mind racing, Millie tried to think how to relate this experience to coffee. Did one deaccession bad beans?
Maxie wore a triumphant smile. “Old documents, eh? We may have additional work for you, aside from coffee!”
Lois’s phone rang as she was lying next to Pamela on the exercise mat, slowly bicycling her legs in an effort to encourage Pam to do the same, while Lon watched them both. The ring tone was Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” which meant Mrs. Pierson was on the line. Lois leapt up and snatched her phone from the top of Mrs. DeWitt’s old rolltop desk.
“Excuse me, I must take this,” she apologized as she exited into Mrs. DeWitt’s old bedroom, now littered with luggage from Lois and Pam’s apartment. She shut the door behind her, and pushed “answer.” “Yes Mrs. Pierson?”
“There you are! Time was when you’d pick up on the first ring! Well, everyone’s getting slack I suppose.” Without giving Lois time to defend herself or explain the difficulties of managing a catatonic girlfriend in the midst of a pandemic, Mrs. Pierson launched into a series of instructions. “You need to pick up a number of misdelivered items from the penthouse and bring them to me at Loon Lake. The idiots at that mail order place took it into their heads to send everything to my Bay City address. Here’s the list.”
Lois had automatically found pen and steno pad and was transcribing Mrs. Pierson’s words into the hooks and potlatches of shorthand, but as realization of Mrs. Pierson’s meaning penetrated, she interrupted with a gasp, “You want me to drive up to Loon Lake?”
“Haven’t you been listening Lois? How else am I going to get the new bicycle-powered generator? I’ve got the whole staff pedaling in turns and it’s barely enough to keep the lights on, let alone the flatscreen television!”
“I can call and have them redeliver—”
“And what about the suckling pig and the chicks? They’ll do me no good if they arrive dead!”
Lois looked down at the list she’d written automatically. Bicycle generator; Water purification system was followed by Fifteen day-old chicks, followed by Suckling pig see Luis, and finally, Case gin.
“You can pick up my mail while you’re there, they’ve been holding it at the front desk and forwarding it once a week. You’ll need to go this afternoon—Luis has been most uncooperative about feeding—” The executive-turned-survivalist broke off to call out in an exasperated tone, “Hilda! Ivy! Aren’t you done setting up that chicken coop yet? The garden needs hoeing.”
Ivy was Ivy Gill, an old friend of Mrs. Pierson who long ago, before she’d entered the Happy Valley sanatorium, had hired Lois at Sather and Stirling. Hilda was the nurse Mrs. Pierson had engaged to care for Ivy when she swept her off to Loon Lake at the beginning of the shutdown. Lois thought Luis was probably one of the long-suffering doormen at Mrs. Pierson’s apartment building.
“How is Miss Gill?” Lois asked now, to buy some time. “You’re keeping her active?”
“Farming is better for her than any occupational therapy,” Mrs. Pierson said, with an air of self-satisfaction. “She’s whipped the staff here into shape and I think we’ll have a bumper crop of strawberries, if we can keep the rodents and birds away!”
“Have you tried cats?” Lois suggested.
“We have three! Although of course they stay in the barn. They’re hunters, not house cats, and I’m a trifle allergic, it turns out. So,” Mrs. Pierson’s voice became brisk again. “I’ll expect you tonight.”
“But Mrs. Pierson—” Lois gnawed on her nails. She hated to disappoint the overbearing executive; in fact she had an ingrained habit of assisting her no matter what she asked. But Pamela—who would take care of Pamela?
“But what?” Mrs. Pierson’s voice was a dangerous purr. “You have something better to do?”
Lois could hear water running in the bathroom, Lon filling the tub for Pamela’s therapeutic bath. Could she trust Lon to care for Pamela in her absence? She’d be gone only for a few hours—well, a day and a half if she had to stay overnight.
At if in answer to her thoughts, Lon appeared in the doorway. “I think you should go,” they said low.
Lois covered the receiver. “Why?” she whispered.
“Sather & Stirling pays your insurance premiums.”
Lon was right. Lois couldn’t risk losing health coverage in the face of multiplying crises. Anxiety ran through the office manager like an electric current at the thought, and with a shock, she registered that she was suddenly worrying about her employability as she hadn’t for fifteen years. Another item to put down to the pandemic’s account.
She uncovered her phone. “I should be there by seven,” she told Mrs. Pierson.
Next: What will Lois find at Loon Lake? What will Ramona discover on the roof? And can selling coffee substitute permanently for Millie’s archiving ambitions?