Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XXX

Previously: Ramona has become increasingly perturbed about girlfriend Jackie’s continued anger and absence, even as she ponders ways and means to finance her own cannabis emporium and cash in on pandemic stress. Meanwhile, Jackie, unable to exercise her acting talents and rebuffed in her attempts to help nurse her Covid-19 positive neighbor, continues in her own downward spiral of pandemic-induced depression.

On the Roof

With a grunt, Ramona heaved herself up the last rungs of the fire escape and onto the roof. She rested on the edge of the parapet, gasping. Was she out of shape or just getting old? No, that was nonsense. Climbing four stories would wind anybody.

Once her sides had stopped heaving, she stood up, resettled her cat’s eye glasses and surveyed her surroundings.

Towards the front of the roof, a kind of makeshift shelter had been made out of an olive-green tarp slung over a rope that was tied to the ancient TV antenna on one end and some sort of venting pipe, or maybe an old chimney pot on the other. The corners of the tarp were pulled back from the rope to make a tent shape, and weighed down, on the side Ramona could see, by a large flower pot with a withered fern and a milkcrate filled with chunks of broken brick. There was an ancient chaise longue a few feet away, its white paint pitted with rust spots.

All was still. Was Jackie sleeping? Ramona slung the shoulder bag with the pecan bun peace offering more securely over her shoulder, then crossed to the makeshift tent. 

“Helloooo?” She tapped on the tarp, but there was no response. Rounding the dead potted plant, Ramona peered into the dim interior, and was confronted with a narrow camp bed—empty—on which a dark green army surplus sleeping bag lay askew. Next to the bed was another milk crate, this one covered with a slab of scrap wood, obviously acting as a sort of night table.

Ramona straightened up, her brow knit in concern. Jackie’s hideaway was beyond bleak! She looked around at the expanse of tar and gravel rooftops with their pipes, poles, and other functional apparatus on display, with none of the aesthetic concealment that covered buildings at the street level. Then she ducked down and shuffled under the tarp.

She sat down on Jackie’s camp bed, since it was impossible to stand straight. Someone–Lon or Jackie–had made attempts at some semblance of comfort: a flashlight suspended from the shelter’s rope ridge as an overhead light, a bit of burlap sacking where Jackie’s slippers stood. Ramona recognized Jackie’s travel clock on the makeshift bedside table, and a few books stacked inside the milkcrate—An Actor Prepares, of course, Plays by Chekhov, some monologue collections and an old issue of Bay City Stage.

Next to the travel clock was a spiral bound notebook. Curious, Ramona picked it up and riffled through the pages. 

It was Jackie’s handwriting. At first it seemed just a collection of miscellaneous jottings—performance notes, grocery lists, the names of a few agents and their phone numbers, the title of a Chekov biography. One page was covered with doodled curlicues around the words WHAT’S MY MOTIVATION?? with MY heavily underlined. However the later pages contained longer, diary-like reflections, which Ramona perused more carefully, looking for evidence of her paramour’s current mood—and of course any mentions of herself. Who, in sneaking a peek at a diary, is not secretly hoping to glimpse their own reflection?

However Ramona was disappointed. Although Jackie bewailed the death of art and her own feelings of doom and being trapped (“like a wolf in a steel-jawed snare—will I have to gnaw off my own paw?”), the unemployed actress seemed absorbed in her own reactions, rarely referencing anyone else. The only exception was an observation that  “the girl down the hall” provoked curiosity by her air of aloofness. “Use this,” Jackie wrote, but whether in a future theatrical production or the present day, Ramona couldn’t guess.

On the last page with writing there was what looked like a poem, or the beginning of one:

The Stunted Plant
Cut off from the sun
Drowning in dryness drought
I lift my feeble leaves
Upward

Jackie was ripe for reconciliation, Ramona deduced, closing the notebook and putting it back on the milkcrate. And maybe Ramona could sort of encourage her volatile girlfriend to channel her frustrated creative energies into writing. That might keep her busy for a bit. Hopefully, the pandemic would end before she got bored.

But for now, Ramona just wrote an unpoetical note to put on Jackie’s pillow. 

I miss you, it read. Please come home.

And she put the pecan bun on top.

At the Park

At that moment, Jackie was strolling in the Bay City Botanical Garden with Angelo. Her old classmate from her days at the Meyer Method Acting Academy had convinced her to descend from her isolated rooftop outpost, quoting an article he’d read about the soothing qualities of nature, and insisting it was just what Jackie needed.

“You’ve just been digging yourself deeper into depression,” he scolded as they entered the garden’s gate. “This will perk you up.”

But just inside the garden’s gate they stopped, in dismayed surprise. The winding pathways and sweeping lawns of Bay City’s favorite nature spot were crammed with people. Solitary ramblers, power walkers, people in pairs and trios, family groups complete with strollers or wheelchairs—it seemed as if all of Bay City had converged to throng the broad walkway that circled the wildflower meadow, or cluster about the reflecting pool with it’s heroic statue of a pioneer woman in the center.

“Let’s head for the Historic Slough,” Angelo suggested after a moment. “No one ever goes there.”

Jackie agreed, although the path that led to the recreated prairie slough wound through a gloomy grove, and the slough was home to a large mosquito population, bound to be ravenous after winter. The fact was, the sight of so many people dizzied and disturbed the depressed thespian. She was simply no longer accustomed to crowds!

Especially after the past week or so on the roof. The only person she’d really seen was Angelo, who had supplied her with meals, even as he’d lectured her that she couldn’t hide from Ramona forever.

“At least you’ve gotten a good tan, up on the roof,” Angelo remarked as they stepped to the right of the main walkway to let another couple pass before turning left onto a narrower path shaded by white pines and hemlocks.

Jackie shrugged. “I’ve been lying on the chaise longue while I think things out.”

Angelo shook his head. “Why do you have to work so hard to figure everything out? Life is simpler if you just take it as it comes.”

“But Angelo, the pandemic—”

“The pandemic’s not permanent! The scientists are working hard to invent a vaccine that will solve the pandemic problem and let us all go back to normal.”

Jackie slanted a sidelong glance at the salon owner and saw that he was serious. She opened her mouth to point out that the Black Death had endured for decades, then stopped herself. She wouldn’t rain on Angelo’s rose-tinted, science-driven parade. If this was the story he told himself to maintain his sunny disposition, far be it from her to quash it!

“Well,” she said after a moment, “Even if that is true…” She trailed away and ducked behind Angelo as several shouting children, maskless, pelted down the pathway. Little vectors! Jackie thought viciously. She tried to glare at the two mothers who followed, but they were too engaged in their own conversation to notice. 

“And anyway what?” prompted Angelo.

“Oh, never mind,” Jackie muttered. It was hard to monitor the masked and maskless passersby and carry on a conversation at the same time!

“I ran into Ramona the other day, at the mailboxes,” Angelo remarked when the path was clear again. “She asked if I’d seen you.”

“What did you say?”

“I said, ‘now and again’—noncommittal. But I felt kind of bad.” Angelo kicked aside a fallen pine cone. “It’s not nice to worry her, Jackie! I don’t understand what your beef is, exactly.” When Jackie stayed silent, he added, “It’s not her fault Dolly chose Lon to nurse Beverly! Dolly’s the one you should be mad at—”

“I’m not mad at anyone!” Jackie interrupted hotly. “I simply can’t forget Ramona’s utter lack of encouragement for me, as a potential nurse! Then there’s her—her unbridled capitalism, her failure to—to value the Arts appropriately. I see now that we’re completely unsuited in every respect! Anyway,” she added as Angelo started to speak, “the reason Dolly chose Lon was because Maxie backed them up with the salon rental deal. If Ramona had backed me up…who knows who would have been chosen nurse?”

“Maybe Ramona couldn’t afford the extra rent,” Angelo pointed out patiently. “And anyway, now that Beverly’s on the mend, isn’t the whole nursing question moot?”

They’d emerged from the pines and into the sun, and found themselves surrounded by slough grass. The path narrowed, forcing them to walk single file. Jackie took the lead through the thick growth of sedge and slough, speckled with wildflowers. Ahead she glimpsed cattails, and the glimmer of the pond. 

“It was never about nursing,” Jackie repeated with exaggerated patience. “The whole incident proves that Ramona has no faith in me, as a person. Otherwise she would have supported me!”

“Ramona does support you,” Angelo pointed out. “After all, you don’t have to worry about the rent or putting food on the table do you?”

Jackie sped up as if to outrun this home truth. But Angelo’s words stuck to her like the marsh mud that spattered her shoes, in spite of her efforts. The impecunious actress had always disliked the fact that she was so dependent on wretched Ramona and the cannabis trade!

She cleared the edge of the slough grass and squelched in the swampy mud, sinking almost to her ankles. Mosquitoes whined and hovered, waterbugs skittered over the glassy puddles that stood everywhere. Jackie slapped at her neck and turned on Angelo, like a water rat at bay. 

“You’re as bad as Ramona! You think I’m useless! That my dedication to the theater makes me completely impractical! Why you’re just another—just another—” The words “small business owner” quivered on the angry girl’s lips, but she couldn’t bring herself to utter them. She couldn’t afford to alienate one of her oldest friends.

“I don’t think any such thing,” Angelo waved away a swarm of gnats. “Though I do think we should get away from this swamp.”

Slapping and shooing the attacking mosquitoes, the two friends sloshed through the swampy mud to the somewhat drier path that led around the pond.

“I think you have lots of talents,” Angelo said soothingly, as if there’d been no interruption. “I think you’re the only one who’s forgotten that. You just need to do something to feel useful again.”

The words were like a meteor shower illuminating the dark turmoil Jackie had felt inside since the pandemic began. That was it! That was the root of all her depression and angst! She’d been idle too long, like the desperate denizens of Bay City, wandering aimlessly through the botanical gardens. She needed something to do, something that would make her feel necessary once more.

“I think you’re right!” she told Angelo. But—” she drooped again and asked forlornly, “But what can I do?”

Angelo started to pat her on the shoulder, then stopped himself. “Why not ask Miss Watkins?” he suggested.

Next: A rodent plays an unexpected role in a rooftop reconciliation.

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