Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms, Episode I

On the Fifth Floor…

In Apartment 501, Phyllis was hunched over her laptop, studying a graph as intricate as a spiderweb, tiny intersecting lines representing death rates and confirmed cases from around the world. “There’s hopeful news from Estonia,” reported the steadfast statistician, ever-eager to find a bright spot in the gray clouds of the pandemic.

“That’s nice,” said Maxie, who was visiting from downstairs. She sat the required six feet away on Phyllis’s bed, her second cup of coffee on the bedside table, her nimble thumbs flying busily as she texted her friend Stella. “But what’s the news closer to home?”

Down the hall in apartment 502, Kay played “Sophisticated Lady” on her clarinet. She had the one-bedroom apartment to herself; her landlady-girlfriend was off somewhere in the building doing maintenance, or maybe building a chicken coop in the backyard. Kay wasn’t sure; she’d been watching a YouTube video on embouchure when Dolly announced her plans over breakfast. Now she lipped her reed, trying to remember the YouTube teacher’s instructions. Do I sound any different? She took a breath and blew the next phrase, And in this heart of yours burned a flame…the mournful notes drifted through the Arms. 

In 501 Maxie’s phone rang. “What?” said Maxie, “Who? Oh Lois. Sorry, Kay’s practicing and I couldn’t hear you.” 

Across Town…

“I’m thinking of signing up for one of those open courses, which do you think would be better, World Philosophy or The Films of Ingmar Bergman? No, work has practically come to a halt. Most of Sather & Stirlings’ clients have suspended their ad campaigns, except for a few soap and pharmaceutical accounts. And now that the staff is set up to work remotely…well, I’ve pretty much checked all the items on my to-do list…”

Lois stood in the kitchen of the apartment she shared with Pamela, her phone to her ear. The dishes were done, the floor had been waxed and polished, and she had completed the annual spring cleaning of her personal files two weeks ahead of schedule. “I have nothing to do,” she said forlornly. 

“Look Lois, there’s no percentage in turning the pandemic into some marathon self-improvement binge!” Maxie’s tinny voice instructed. “Why don’t you and Pamela just relax and have fun for a bit? You both could use a vacation!”

Lois glanced towards the bedroom door at the far end of the hallway. It was still closed. Her eyes travelled to the stove, where the scrambled eggs and bacon she’d left warming in the oven were probably beginning to shrivel. “Have fun, that’s a thought,” Lois hoped Maxie wouldn’t notice that her cheeriness was a trifle forced. “Actually, Pamela’s been using this—this opportunity to catch up on her rest.”

At Bay City General Hospital

Beverly zipped up the personal protective suit she’d pulled on over her scrubs, tucked a hair cover over her short afro, topped the ensemble off with a splash guard and added a pair of blue gloves. She hummed as she prepared for another shift: Smoking, drinking, never thinking of tomorrow… Now what had put that in her head?

Another nurse entered the locker room, pulling off her snug-fitting mask, which left a sweat-stained circle around her mouth. “Oh, sorry!” she said, seeing Beverly. 

“I’m just going—how many new?”

The other nurse pulled her mask back on. “No official count yet, but probably four.”  She turned to her locker. “Just let me grab my duds, then it’s a shower and home to hubby—much good he does me, since we’re sleeping separately.” She exited to the shower room, calling back, “You’re lucky your single!”

Hmph, thought Beverly.

On the Fourth Floor…

Lon heard the clarinet as she panted her way through a series of push-ups, in Maxie’s lavish loft. Everyone called it “Maxie’s” even though Lon had lived there, on and off, since the renovation.

Six years ago, when Dolly had embarked on the big overhaul of the Magdalena Arms, turning the single rooms and communal bathrooms into small studios and one-bedroom apartments, Maxie had taken over the entire fourth floor. She claimed she needed room for her many enterprises, and her extravagant renovation dwarfed all of the apartment conversions put together. 

Now french doors opened out onto the narrow balcony that overlooked the tiny back garden (Dolly had refused to let Maxie put one in front). windows ran the length of the rest of the rear wall, flooding the space with light. Sunlight sparkled on the rarely used chromium fixtures in the kitchen, and gleamed on the shelves of Brazilian mahogany, displaying the paperbacks put out by Fifth Floor Editions, Maxie’s publishing company. The built in hi-fi, the piles of rugs, the silk draperies around Maxie’s bed—privately Lon thought it was a bit much. The only truly essential parts of Maxie’s showplace were the couch, cocktail cart, and telephone. Eight times out of nine you could find Maxie comfortably ensconced in the corner of the L-shaped couch, feet up, a tray on the glass-topped coffee table, phone to her ear, as she spun some new scheme.

When she was in town, that is. It was purest chance that she’d flown back to Bay City from Switzerland just as the shut down began. Lon had been relieved to see her walk in the door unannounced, scarcely days before the first confinement order was issued.

But now…

“Is that all you really want?” Lon sang between gasps as she performed a second repetition of pushups. She was in the small room she’d insisted on, her only contribution to the redesign. “I need privacy if you don’t,” she’d told Maxie.

Now she wondered if this room would be enough.

On the Third Floor…

Below, in apartment 301, Laura did not hear the clarinet. She was on a conference call with her noise-canceling headphones covering her ears. “I think we should anticipate pushback from the union if we move forward with the disaster service worker call-up,” the civil service servant said. “There will surely be questions about PPE.” She listened and sighed. “Yes, I know.”

Down the hall in 302, Sylvia and Terry were sitting in the kitchen. Terry was making a grocery list. “How about bread?” she asked. “Should I get some more?”

Sylvia was smoking and reading The Bay City Sentinel on her iPad. “Honey, we have five loaves in the freezer.”

“But we have another mouth to feed,” Terry protested. Two weeks ago Sylvia’s daughter Patricia had come home from her sophomore year of college.

“Patsy’s gluten-free now,” said Sylvia. 

“She is?” Terry brightened. “I better track down some gluten-free bread.” The pint-sized butch sprang up and hurried over to the living room door, which was closed. She and Sylvia had turned that room over to Patricia when she returned home, agreeing that the college girl would need her own space. 

Now Terry knocked and called, “Patsy honey? Do you have a brand of gluten-free bread you like? I’m doing some shopping today!”

After a short delay the muffled reply arrived: “I don’t care!”

“Are you sure? What about rice, are you okay with the white rice or should I get some brown?”

“I don’t care! I’m trying to do class!”

Terry sat back down at the table and frowned at her list. “I think I’ll try to get her some brown rice.”

On the Second Floor…

The music was just a faint echo on the second floor, which was three-quarters empty. If Ramona had been home in apartment 202, which she shared with Jackie, she might have shouted “Turn up the volume baby! Swing it!” But Ramona was at the cannabis dispensary she managed and she’d taken Jackie with her. “You might as well come along since your show’s closed,” she’d said. “We’re busier than ever and could use the help.”

Apartment 201 was empty as well. Angelo had always been proud of his tiny, exquisitely decorated studio, but now he found it oppressive. the unemployed coiffeur preferred to putter in his empty salon

Apartment 203’s occupant was still asleep, curled into a little ball. She’d found a job in Bay City, moved into a new apartment, lost her job and been confined to the new apartment all in the space of a month.

On the First Floor…

Angelo was swiveling back and forth in one of the “Angel’s Hair” salon chairs, filing his nails and brooding. His thoughts followed a familiar pattern: How is hairdressing not an essential business? It’s necessary for morale! I have masks. I have hand sanitizer. Hairdressers know all about sanitation—everyone knows one case of lice can kill a business. We’re used to dealing with germs and vermin!

Across from the salon, On the other side of the grand hallway with its chandelier and mosaic tiling, Mrs. DeWitt’s apartment was empty. The last echo of music died out in the dim room, crowded with old-fashioned, over-stuffed furniture, silver-framed photos, piles of scrapbooks, magazines, newspaper clippings, theater programs, the paraphernalia of a long and varied life. No one had had the heart to start sorting and cleaning. “She was old and frail,” Beverly had reminded them. “It was bound to happen, even without the virus.” 

In the Sub-basement Storeroom…

Down in the sub-basement, underneath the old-fashioned, rarely used kitchen, Dolly was working up a sweat. She’d cleared all the remaining storeroom detritus to one side and was prying off the molding that ran around the room, midway up the wall.

“Come on,” she whispered, working her pry bar from side to side. The wood inched outward, shrieking on the ancient nails. She wedged a second pry bar foot down the length of board and gave both a simultaneous wrench. The molding splintered and a four foot length fell to the ground, taking a chunk of plaster with it.

Dolly, who had jumped back, looked at the wreckage and pursed her lips. She’d hoped to get the length of moulding off in one piece. But still, “Progress!” she told herself. 

Next: Pamela Has the Blues

Pamela Prendergast, former doyenne of dressing at a now shuttered department store, has been reduced to pajamas and bedhead! Whether sleeping until noon or sipping beer in front of the news, Pam is a shattered wreck of her former take-charge self. How can her concerned girlfriend snap her out of this catastrophic Covid-induced depression??

Tune in every Friday, for a new episode! (at least until the author’s work situation changes)

Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode II

Irregular Hours

At 11 a.m. Lois opened the door to the bedroom she and Pamela shared to see if her girlfriend was awake yet. 

Pam was an inanimate lump in the bed, burrowed under the blue bedspread with only a few wisps of red hair showing bright against the white pillow. She’d turned her back to the daylight that filtered through the blinds.

Lois tiptoed up the edge of the bed and peered worriedly down at her girlfriend of almost a decade. From this perspective she could now see an inch or two of pale, freckled skin. “Pam,” she said softly. “Don’t you want to get up? It’s eleven already!”

Slowly Pamela turned, her face emerging from the crumpled sheets. One gray-green eye squinted at Lois. “What time is it?” 

“Eleven,” Lois repeated.

“Well,” Pam turned fully over and blinked at the ceiling, “I guess I missed breakfast.”

The head buyer for women’s wear at Gruneman’s department store had been home for two-and-a-half weeks. The first week she’d been busy from morning until night, calling suppliers, rescheduling deliveries, conferring with other buyers, and “the gang in finance,” as she always referred to them. She’d jumped out of bed at 7:00 a.m. as usual, and scribbled notes in her planner while she drank her coffee and crunched on her dry toast. She’d even dressed for the office at first, putting on a paisley maxi dress with gold link belt and chartreuse scarf because it was, “Good for morale.” Lois had done the same and together they’d commuted to their Danish modern dining table, where they simultaneously donned headphones as they sat down and their separate workdays began. Lois, too, had remote meetings and phone calls conferring with the higher-ups at Sather and Stirling, the advertising agency where she was office manager.

But as Pam’s tasks turned grimmer—cancelling the deliveries she’d rescheduled, laying off the lingerie department, holding tense discussions with accounts payable—she’d dropped the work-wear for slacks and a sweater; at the last virtual meeting, when she and the other buyers were put on half-pay “until June when we reassess”, she’d simply covered her polka-dotted pajama top with a striped silk scarf. Lois knew then that Pamela was seriously perturbed—ordinarily she would never pair the two clashing patterns! 

Now Gruneman’s doyenne of dressing hardly got out of her pajamas. She ate odd meals at odd hours—paté on ritz crackers, peanutbutter and honey sandwiches, olives or tunafish straight from the can. She spent her evenings sitting in front of the television and nursing a beer, watching the news, the same stories repeated at 6, 6:30, 10, 10:30, and 11. Once Lois had woken to find herself alone in bed. She’d crept out to the living room and there was Pam, on the couch, tears streaming down her face as she watched an old training video on bra-sizing.  

Be patient, Lois had told herself. She’ll snap out of it. The stalwart office manager had kept the household running, standing in long lines for delicacies to tempt Pamela, and researching recipes as she attempted to recreate Pam’s favorite restaurant dishes—patty melts, veal piccata, steak tartare. She’d cleaned the house for the first time in years, finding a certain satisfaction in discovering that the skills she’s learned so long ago in Mrs. Grimes Dom Sci class were still intact. 

And she’d had her own share of grim phonecalls as Sather and Stirling, their work reduced to a few food and detergent accounts (which hardly needed advertising), shut down and cutback. She’d reassured the despondent members of the typing pool that they’d have jobs “when this was all over” but she hardly believed it herself anymore. Mrs. Pierson, the managing partner, had retreated to her country house on Loon Lake; ensconced there with only an invalid friend, her cook, and a registered nurse, far from Bay City and its mounting rate of positive cases, she seemed to have forgotten the agency. Her new preoccupation was survival, and she pestered Lois with requests to order pedal-powered generators,  gardening supplies, and cases of liquor, all to be expressed to her remote cabin.

“Do what you like, Lois,” she’d interrupted, when Lois queried her about mundane details such as payroll and print bills. “These are end times, mark my words. End times.”

Lois had no energy to argue with apocalypse-minded executive. Her primary concern was Pamela. It was painful to watch her once sturdy sweetheart wasting away under pandemic strain. Now, as Pamela slowly sat up, Lois noted the blue shadows under her eyes, the way the polka-dotted pajamas hung loosely about her torso. Why, if the dreaded virus did make it past the barricade of precautions Lois had taken, the dozens of daily handwashing, the plastic-curtained “decontamination zone” in the entryway, where she put mail, packages, and grocery bags, the gloves and the masks, the sanitizers, the stocked freezer that had made it unnecessary to leave the surgically sterile apartment for the past two weeks…if somehow a speck of virus made it through and leapt to Pam’s hand, and then to the eye Pam was now rubbing—why, the once respected retailer would simply crumple under the infection like an overused tissue!

“Pam!” Anxiety made Lois’s voice sharp. “Get up! I’m going to make you eggs, bacon, toast, a fresh pot of coffee, and you’re going to eat them all! And then—”

“And then what?” Pam challenged her, pushing back the tangle of over-grown hair from her face. 

“And then we’re going to cut your hair!” Lois declared.

Next: Maxie Can’t Keep Her Distance

The gregarious girl is jonesing for her old social life, and her scofflaw tendencies are driving Phyllis wild! Is social pressure enough to teach Madcap Maxie to toe the health department line, or are sterner measures needed?

Tune in every Friday for a new episode! (at least until the author’s work situation changes)

Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode III

Missed the earlier episodes? You can find them all here.

Irregular Hours, continued

It was almost noon when Phyllis closed her computer.  Getting up from her desk with a sigh, she conscientiously went through a series of stretches designed for the sedentary office worker: she rolled her head from side to side, shrugged her shoulders, clasped her hands behind her arched back, bent forward, backward, sideways. 

From her spot on Phyllis’s bed Maxie watched with interest. When Phyllis stood upright again, breathing hard from her exertion, Maxie asked, “Is that the same workout as yesterday?”

“Yes it is. It’s important to follow a regular routine in these irregular times,” Phyllis glanced at her wristwatch. “For example, now It’s time for lunch.” 

“I’ve just finished breakfast,” said Maxie.

Phyllis refrained from comment as she went to her icebox and pulled out the day’s lunch, already prepared and labeled Tuesday. She’d long ago learned that Maxie just couldn’t follow a regular schedule. It was a waste of breath to try to make her understand the many benefits of routine.

Maxie got up and slid her feet into a pair of marabou-feathered mules as Phyllis opened her door, then followed the statistician into the hall. Across the way Kay was playing “Lush Life,” the clarinet mournfully dreaming about the very gay places. 

Phyllis turned right towards the stairs. Maxie followed. Phyllis moved faster, widening the gap. Maxie sped up, closing it. “Maxie!” Phyllis held up a warning hand. “Six feet!” 

Maxie slowed obediently, but complained, “Oh Phyllis, we’re practically co-contaminants! Shouldn’t we just think of everyone in the Arms as family?” 

“Maxie, I’ve explained,” Phyllis began with threadbare patience, but Maxie backed down. 

“All right, all right. You don’t have to go into that guff about large groups again.”

“It’s not guff!” Phyllis said hotly. Nothing incensed the statistician more than lack of respect for data. “Honestly Maxie, you must take this pandemic and the health protocols more seriously. If you don’t, I’m not sure I want you visiting me in my room, even with the six foot rule and washing your hands first.”

“Oh please, Phyllis,” Instinctively Maxie stepped forward and then caught herself and retreated. “Don’t cut me off! The lack of company is giving me the heebee-jeebees!”

Phyllis was standing on the landing between the fourth and fifth floor, and Maxie was on the flight above. Speaking as quietly as she could and still have her voice carry, Phyllis asked, “But you’ve got Lon for company. Or are you two having…difficulties, again?”

Maxie shrugged. “Not so’s you’d notice. But Lon hates being cooped up even more than I do,” she wasn’t sure the serious scientist could understand how confinement, even with a long-time lover, affected the intensely secretive student of sea creatures. “They’re used to having a whole ocean to roam and being alone on a boat for weeks at a time.” As Phyllis still appeared unconvinced, Maxie fibbed, “I think they’re having flashbacks to that stint in prison back in 1964, so I’m trying to give them space. That’s why I’ve been visiting so much.”

“Well,” Phyllis relented. “I guess we can continue as we’ve been doing. If you take precautions.” She began to descend the stairs again, then turned around, struck by an idea. “Perhaps we should take our temperatures each morning?” 

“Whatever you say,” Maxie agreed. Now was not the time to remind Phyllis of the Iceland study and the possibility of asymptomatic contagion.

She waited dutifully until Phyllis had left the landing, before descending the rest of the flight and letting herself into her fourth floor loft, which her friend’s had nicknamed “Maxie’s manse.”

“Hellooooo?” she called. Her mules clacked as she crossed the polished marquetry floor of the entryway and then were muffled by the turkish rugs that layered the living area. She tapped on the door to the spartan room she thought of as ‘Lon’s little hidey-hole.’ “Lon?”

After a moment she opened the door. The single bed against the wall was neatly made up, the bedclothes pulled tight enough to bounce a quarter. The orange crate next to it held an alarm clock, cigarettes, a paperback book. Lon’s standard equipment. 

Briefly, Maxie debated poking into Lon’s armoire, to aid her speculations about where her lover had gone and what they might be up to. But instead she backed out and closed the door. 

It was better not to know. Then she wouldn’t have to lie to Phyllis.

Next: Phyllis’s Weak Spot

The serious statistician is tempted to break the very health protocols she advocates when it comes to luscious downstairs neighbor Laura! How long can she repress her unsettling impulse to close the distance between them?

Tune in every Friday for a new episode! (or maybe even oftener!)

Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode IV

Missed the earlier episodes? You can find them all here.

Love in a Time of Pandemic

As Phyllis stepped onto the third floor landing, she automatically glanced down the hallway and the three shut doors that lined it.

As if on cue, the door to Apartment 401 swung open and Laura stepped out.

Phyllis caught her breath at the sight of her downstairs neighbor. Had there ever been a more attractive Assistant to the Head of Public Housing?

Like Phyllis, Laura followed a regular routine, dressing each morning with her usual care, eating at her regular times, and had confided to Phyllis that it was her strict rule not to read any news after 9 p.m. In a dozen small ways she projected an air of serenity Phyllis found admirable. 

And unlike Phyllis, who had years ago abandoned the fight to stay fashionable for a utilitarian uniform in shades of gray and tan, Laura brightened the windowless hallway in a gayly printed tunic.

Earlier that morning, Phyllis had attended a zoom meeting along with Laura. Although she’d tried to focus on the charts the  Emergency Operations Committee were sharing, she couldn’t help but be distracted by her comely colleague. Freed from the confines of the computer screen, the flesh and blood Laura was doubly distracting. The oranges and yellows of her tunic were more vivid, the snug black leotards that encased her lithe legs a delicious detail Phyllis had missed in the online environment. The grainy quality of a Zoom video didn’t do justice to Laura’s warm complexion or the gold flecks in her dark eyes; and the square window had cut off the attractive afro that now framed the Housing Assistant’s face. Laura had recently gone natural, and Phyllis secretly thought the current trend was wildly becoming to her neighbor. 

All in all, Laura six feet away was ten times more vibrant than computer Laura. Phyllis wondered if she should recalibrate her laptop’s color settings.

“Phyllis!” Laura’s preoccupied frown turned into a wide smile. “Going downstairs for lunch?”

Phyllis had developed the habit of taking her lunch to the unused basement kitchen to eat. It helped her feel less confined.

And she often ran into Laura, doing the same thing.

Phyllis nodded. “You too?”

Laura sighed. “I need to get out of my room and move my body before the next meeting.” She circled her shoulders and rotated her head. “Sitting so long—”

“I could—” Phyllis stopped and blushed. 

“What?” 

“I was going to—that is, I wish I could give you a-a neck rub.” The social scientist laughed self-consciously. “But of course…”

“I wish you could too!” said Laura fervently.

The two women swayed towards each other, as if magnetized, and then immediately drew back. 

“Maybe in the lounge you could find one of those wooden balls on a stick, you know for rubbing out the kinks.” Phyllis stuttered, “I-I mean, muscle kinks.”

“Of course,” said Laura, politely. The two stood in a standoff until Phyllis realized that she was blocking Laura’s path.

“Oh, sorry!” she scrambled down the stairs.

“Don’t worry about it!” Laura followed, keeping six feet between herself and Phyllis’s dishwater blond head.

Next: Dolly in Mourning

The usually upbeat landlady must confront the reality of Mrs. DeWitt’s death as she begins to clean out her beloved predecessor’s empty apartment. Will Dolly’s stiff upper lip wilt before the chaotic collection of memories?

Enjoy this bonus “Humpday” episode and tune in every Friday for the latest installment!

Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode V

Dolly in Mourning

Dolly stood just inside the door to Mrs. DeWitt’s suite of rooms on the first floor, hands on her coverall-covered hips. The prospect before her was a daunting one.

The sitting room was stuffed with armchairs and sofas, nested walnut side tables, and overgrown ferns in brass pots balanced on top of rickety stands. There were walnut whatnots in every corner, their shelves loaded with figurines, crystal decanters, old packs of playing cards, vases of swizzle sticks, or piles of poker chips.

But worse than the chaotic collection of curios to be sorted and disposed was the intangible heaviness that weighed Dolly down, the sadness that squeezed her heart. A melancholy seemed to rise from the room and wrap itself about her like a heavy, damp turkish towel.

Dolly squared her shoulders. She mustn’t let herself be immobilized by her grief. Action—action was what she needed. 

And light! She’d go blind if she tried to work in this dimness. 

“Musta been terrible for Harriet’s eyes,” she muttered as she squeezed between a loveseat and a low teak tea table, then skirted a brass-bound trunk and circumnavigated a small statue of Shakespeare. Finally reaching the front windows, she stretched over a rolltop desk to yank apart the dusty velvet drapes. Sunlight fell in a swath over the room, illuminating piles of magazines and books. Dust motes danced in the air.

Lord knows Dolly had loved Mrs. DeWitt like a mother, but there were no two ways about it—the Magdalena Arms’ Landlady Emerita had been a pack-rat.

A buzzer sounded and Dolly maneuvered her way back to the door, and pushed the button to unlatch the front entrance for her visitors. She stepped into the hall and watched as Lois and Pam came in and let the heavy double doors with their elaborate brass grille swing closed behind them. The pair paused inside the entrance.

“Pam! Your hair!” Dolly exclaimed.

The redhead self-consciously smoothed her head. She was shorn as close as a spring lamb. “Lois did it.” 

Pam seemed subdued to Dolly, or maybe it was just that she was muffled by her mask. The usually modish merchandiser was dressed like a dockworker, in old jeans and a worn men’s shirt of blue chambray. A white t-shirt peeked out at her throat, and the rolled-up sleeves revealed her swelling biceps.

“I’d forgotten how well you butch up,” Dolly said approvingly.

“I didn’t mean for it to be quite so short,” Lois explained. “But I kept trying to even it out, and suddenly there just wasn’t much left!”

Pam glanced wistfully at Angelo’s hair salon.

“I like it,” Dolly reassured her old friend. “If Gruneman’s could see you now!” 

It was the wrong thing to say. Pam’s whole frame seemed to droop.

“Dolly, where’s your mask?” Lois demanded.

“Down in the kitchen, I think,” Dolly replied. “Can’t we just stay six feet apart?”

“Go get it,” Lois ordered. “We want to help, but we simply must follow the health department’s guidelines!” 

It was Lois who’d decreed a two-week decontamination period before anyone even entered Mrs. DeWitt’s former apartment. Now she handed Pam a pair of latex gloves before donning her own. 

There was no point arguing with the adamant office manager. “Well…I guess you two can go ahead in and get started, if you want, while I mask up. There are empty boxes inside the door, for sorting.”

And Dolly took her time descending to the basement kitchen. She had to admit, she didn’t mind delaying the mournful task. 

When Mrs. DeWitt’s old apartment was cleaned out and rented to someone new, Dolly’s beloved friend would be really gone. Gone for good.

Lunch à Deux

Dolly interrupts a lunchtime tête-à-tête between civil servant tenants Laura and Phyllis and recalls the multiple misunderstandings that have muddied the course of true love for the otherwise consummately compatible couple. Will she go through with her impetuous scheme to trap the misguided twosome together in a malfunctioning elevator? Or is there a better way to wake up the pining pair?

Tune in every Friday for a new episode! (or maybe even oftener! Always depending on the author’s unpredictable schedule!)

Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode VI

Quarantine Lunch à Deux

Entering the basement kitchen in search of her missing mask, Dolly surprised Laura and Phyllis, seated at opposite ends of the long table where Dolly had once kneaded dough for her sticky buns, mixed up waffle batter, or chopped green peppers and ham for omelets, making the hearty breakfasts the Magdalena Arms was famous for.

The communal breakfasts were now a distant memory. And a good thing, too, Dolly reminded herself. It certainly would have been awkward, feeding her boarders buffet style, given the new health requirements!

The two Bay City civil servants started guiltily at Dolly’s entrance, as if their landlady had interrupted them in a clinch rather than munching sandwiches two yards away from each other.

“Hello!” she greeted them. “Just getting my mask. Don’t let me interrupt your lunch date.”

“Oh, we’re not on a lunch date!” said Phyllis.

“That is, we’re having lunch,” clarified Laura, as if to explain the half-eaten sandwich in front of her. “But, we just came down here to…escape our apartments.”

“Yes, we both had the same idea, but it wasn’t planned,” said Phyllis, who planned her life down to the second. 

“Two minds, with but a single thought,” murmured Dolly, as she rummaged around the kitchen sink, trying to remember where she’d left her mask. The last thing she wanted to do was interrupt this promising tête-à-tête!

The romance between the serious statistician and her sociologist soul-mate had been simmering for so long that if love was coffee, theirs would be sludge by now. First Phyllis was recovering from a failed fling with a two-timing supervisor; then Laura was finishing her masters while working full time. “We must help Laura stay focused,” Phyllis had repeated to the Magdalena Arms girls, but it was clear she was talking to herself. 

Everyone thought the frustrated romance would finally burst into bloom after Laura’s degree was conferred, but another obstacle arose: Laura was offered a plum job at the Bay City Planning Department–where Phyllis was Assistant Zoning Manager. Even though Laura didn’t actually report to Phyllis, both Bay City bureaucrats were too ethical to embark on an office romance that might be misconstrued.

At the time, Dolly had asked Laura, “What about that other job offer, to be policy analyst at the whatsamajigger?”

“The Urban Institute? I’ve thought about it,” Laura admitted. “It would be more interesting, in some ways, but the benefits of working in Bay City bureaucracy can’t be beat!”

“Aren’t there other advantages to working at the Urban Institute?” Dolly pushed.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Laura parried.

“Well, you wouldn’t have any qualms about dating Phyllis, for one,” said Dolly bluntly.

“Who says she wants to date me?” Laura asked, nervously smoothing her hair into the tidy chignon she’d worn back then. “She thinks of me as a protege, not a dating prospect!”

“Oh Laura, you’d be a catch for any girl in the Arms!” Dolly protested.

It had often astounded the veteran landlady that attractive, accomplished Laura had fallen for the single-minded statistician.

“So is Phyllis,” Laura retorted. “I know you and your gang think of her as nothing more than a fussy bureaucrat, but in our profession she’s got quite a reputation–why, no one can make a chart do the things Phyllis can! I feel fortunate that she’s given me so much of her time and advice over the years. And I’m sure,” she added as Dolly tried to interrupt, “That it has more to do with her sense of — of noblesse oblige to the next generation of civil servants, than anything else.”

Dolly had given up trying to interfere, hoping that her two mixed-up tenants would manage their love lives without her help. But instead she’d watched the two fall further into a muddle of misunderstanding.

It was at the party celebrating Laura’s degree and job offer. The Arms’s lounge had been packed. There’d been cake and champagne; toasts and impromptu dancing. At the end of the evening, as the crowd thinned, Laura and Phyllis, with one instinct, had moved to the buffet table to tidy.

“So you really think the planning department job is…is right for me?” Dolly heard Laura ask Phyllis. The landlady peered around a pillar and saw that Laura was looking down as she asked the seemingly casual question, apparently focused on fitting the remains of her “Happy Graduation” cake into a too-small tupperware container.

“Well, of course!” Phyllis exclaimed, vehemently. The statistician was sweeping energetically around the buffet table. “You’ll be wonderful at it!” For a moment she slowed her vigorous sweeping and stole a glance at the younger girl, “Why do you ask? Do you have any…reservations?” 

“Not about the job, per se…” Laura carefully concentrated on fitting the tupperware lid over the cake.

“Because you’re perfect for it!” Phyllis attacked the crumbs under the table again. 

“I was just thinking, won’t it be…be…”Laura groped for the next word before finishing “odd to be working in the same department?”

“You mean, with me?” Phyllis seemed taken aback. Then she began sweeping so hard Dolly feared for the broom. “I can assure you–“

“Not odd, that’s not what I meant–“

“I will be completely professional. No one will even know we’re–we’re acquainted.”

“Well, of course, I would expect nothing less,” Laura busied herself brushing crumbs off the table onto the newly swept floor. “I’ll be the same.”

“You’ll have free rein to make your own–connections. Professional, collegial I mean.”

“I won’t get in your way either,” Laura said briskly.

At which point Dolly had intervened, sending Laura to say good night to a cluster of departing guests, and taking the battered broom away from Phyllis. But the damage had been done. Even after Laura transferred to the Housing Department, relations between her and Phyllis had stayed cooly professional–especially when Laura took up with a nurse friend of Beverly’s.

The pandemic had been both a blessing and a curse. The crisis had acted on the two women’s feelings like spring on frozen sap; but what was the next move? Phyllis and Laura had never been clever about closing the distance between them–how could they possibly manage when six feet was mandated by health department order? 

Now Laura broke the awkward silence while Dolly hunted for her mask. “We heard the front door buzzer,” she said. “Another package?”

Since the shutdown, the influx of packages had increased to the point that Dolly had left all of the Arms inmates know she could not be expected to answer the door every time a delivery person rang, and that if they wanted their packages, they’d better keep an ear peeled.

“No, it was just Pam and Lois. They’ve come to help clean out Mrs. DeWitt’s–aha!” She spotted her mask, made from an old flower-sprigged sheet, dangling from the antenna of an ancient radio on top of the refrigerator, and whisked it on. “Ta ta, you two.”

Behind her she heard the sound of chairs scraped back. 

“I should be getting back to work.” 

“Me too. Thank you for sending me the link to the Iceland study’s raw data. The model that they used…” 

Dolly rolled her eyes as she climbed the stairs. She’d considered trapping the pair together on the elevator, disabling it between floors and pretending it had broken. But what good would it do? No matter how many hours she left Phyllis and Laura penned up together, she’d open the elevator doors only to find them maintaining as much distance as possible and discussing statistical models. 

Dolly sighed as she thumped upstairs. Hadn’t the pandemic taught those two that life was too short to be spent pussyfooting around with statistics while suppressing their true desires?

Next: A Sorting Spat

Lois and Dolly quarrel over the disposal of Mrs. DeWitt’s detritus, and Dolly worries about Pam’s strange lethargy.

Tune in every Friday for a new episode! (or maybe even oftener! Always depending on the author’s unpredictable schedule!)

Find all the previous episodes here; or start reading from the first episode.

Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode VII

Missed the earlier episodes? You can find them all here. Or start from the beginning with Episode I and use the “next” button at the top the screen to move between episodes.

In our previous episodes, nervous Lois and newly-shorn Pam have arrived to help Dolly clean out dead Mrs. DeWitt’s apartment. Health code conscious Lois has sent the more casual Dolly to retrieve her mask while she and her depressed girlfriend begin the sorting process.

Sorting Spat

Back in Mrs. De Witt’s rooms, Lois and Pam were hard at work. With her usual organizational acumen, Lois had set Pam to sorting figurines and framed photos into separate boxes, while she stacked scrapbooks and clippings on the carved walnut breakfront that stood against one wall.  She’d clustered the potted ferns in front of one of the whatnots and it was marginally easier to move through Mrs. DeWitt’s salon, as the deceased had referred to it. 

“What should I do?” Dolly queried. 

“Why don’t you tackle Mrs. DeWitt’s wardrobe?” Lois asked. “We’re sorting everything into three piles: discards, charity, and possible mementos or items of value.” She gestured at the already full box of figurines. “I thought we’d put those in the hall for the girls to look through and take what they want.” 

Dolly glanced at the box and stiffened. “That’s her Theatre Guild award,” she pointed at a gold statuette of a woman in grecian robes holding a lamp. “You think anybody should just grab it?” Her hackles rose at the idea.

“Well–no, not if you want it–“

“I don’t want it, but—” Dolly’s eyes fell on a stack of old theater programs. “What, you’re putting her old shows into the discard pile?” Her voice rose.

“We didn’t think anyone would be interested—”

“That’s her history!” Dolly flung her arms out.

“Nothing’s set in stone,” Lois said, her patience wearing thin. “These are just piles, Dolly. Would you rather Pam and I came back another day?”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Dolly tried to rein in her irritation. “I appreciate you’re coming over and helping. But there’s not such a rush to clear out that we need to throw every memento into the trash!”

Lois stiffened at the criticism. “I’m not throwing everything into the trash, Dolly, I’m simply applying the scientific sorting techniques I’ve developed in years of managing the paperwork left over from hundreds of ad campaigns! In my experience, the more you brood over decisions—”

“I’m not saying we should brood, I just want a little—a little—”

“Girls, calm down.” Pamela, who’d been standing by lethargically, holding the disputed theater guild award, roused herself at last. “There’s no need to turn a simple cleaning session into World War III. We’ll just leave the piles as is. Dolly can decide what to do with them.”

Why, she doesn’t even care, Dolly realized. Pamela seemed to be in another world. 

“I’m only here to help Dolly,” Lois said huffily. “If she’s not interested in my expertise…”

“Of course I am, Lois,” Dolly caved. She could never stay mad long. “I’m sorry I got a little bent out of shape. It’s just…shouldn’t we put a little thought into this, and not go putting everything up for grabs or in the trash like so much junk?”

“I never meant to treat Mrs. DeWitt’s treasures like junk,” Lois said earnestly. “But with the price of storage space what it is today, there simply has to be some judicious sifting for what’s truly worth saving!”

Pam had absentmindedly set the golden theater trophy on top of the programs. Her eyes stared unseeingly into the distance. If Dolly hadn’t known Pamela’s was violently opposed to drug use, she would have suspected the erstwhile retailer was nodding off on dope!

“Pam, are you feeling all right?” She asked.

“Who, me?” Pam’s eyes focused again. “I’m fine.” But she turned in a circle, as if she’d lost her way. “So…we’re sorting still?”

“Yes,” said Dolly, staring. “Let’s keep sorting.”

“Pam, you can keep working on that whatnot,” Lois instructed her older girlfriend as if Pam was a small child.

Dolly wished she could pull Lois aside, whisper in her ear, “What’s up with Pam?” but the masks, the distance…the smallest social exchange seemed impossibly difficult suddenly. Just thinking about it overwhelmed the normally lively landlady.

“I guess I’ll have a go at Mrs. DeWitt’s wardrobe,” she muttered, picking up a box.

Next: A Shocking Secret!

As Lois, Pam, and Dolly sift through the detritus of their ex-landlady’s life, they make a startling discovery that has unexpected consequences for all the Magdalena Arms girls!

Check back often this weekend for bonus episodes! We’re posting once or twice a day in honor of LGBTQ+ Pride.

Find all the previous episodes here; or start reading from the first episode.

Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode VIII

In our last episode, Lois and Dolly clashed on what to keep from Mrs. DeWitt’s overstuffed apartment. Disturbed by Pamela’s strange lethargy, Dolly retreats to Mrs. DeWitt’s bedroom.

Missed the earlier episodes? You can find them all here. Or start from the beginning with Episode I and use the “next” button at the top the screen to move between episodes.

A Shocking Secret

Did she want Mrs. DeWitt’s old Theatre Guild Award? Dolly felt confused by the inchoate emotions sloshing around inside her, like water in a bathtub. Part of her wanted to treasure all that Mrs. DeWitt had treasured; but she knew if she took even half the mementos she she felt she ought to save, the one-bedroom she shared with Kay would be so clogged that even her even-tempered girlfriend would call halt.

The important thing is my memories, not a lot of junk, she lectured herself as she attacked Mrs. DeWitt’s walnut wardrobe. Swiftly she emptied a drawer of socks and underwear into the discard box. No one would want Mrs. DeWitt’s worn out hose and old-fashioned lingerie. 

Unless–maybe this antique corset was old enough to be valuable? Could Jackie use it for a theatrical costume? Dolly fished it out and laid it on the bed. 

Then she turned to the hanging garrments. Mrs. DeWitt had an enormous selection of dressing gowns, her preferred garb, day or night. The rose wool with the hem coming down went into the discards, but Dolly hesitated over the watered maroon silk with the mink collar, before dropping it in the giveaway box. But what should she do with the quilted lilac silk that had been Mrs. DeWitt’s favorite? Surely that was memento-worthy, even with the staining on the lapel? And look, there were the lilac lounging pajamas! Dolly had never realized they matched the quilted dressing gown–Mrs. DeWitt had always paired the pajamas with a wool sweater.

Overwhelmed again, Dolly sank down on the bed. Why was she stewing over these schmattes? Mrs. DeWitt didn’t care about clothes; her head was in the clouds, on her poetry, on her girls, on the Magdalena Arms. What was that poem she used to quote? 

Oh the something something go on
To their haven under the hill
But O for the touch of that vanished hand, 
And the sound of a voice that is–

“Dolly! Come here a minute!” Lois’s voice from the other room was urgent. Dolly heaved herself off the bed, leaving the lilac lounging pajamas in a heap.

Lois and Pam were clustered around the rolltop desk under the window. The rolltop was rolled up, and the deep drawer to the left of the kneehole was open. Lois had evidently emptied it of papers, sorting them into piles on the desktop. Dolly recognized one pile as Mrs. DeWitt’s handwritten compositions, her scraps of verse and philosophical musings. But Lois was holding up a typewritten document.

“Look at this!”

Gingerly Dolly took it from the tips of Lois’s fingertips, and read out loud, “‘I, Harriet DeWitt, sometimes known as Trudi Frisch, as Madame d’Esprit, as Hattie White, domiciled in Bay City, being of sound mind and memory do hereby declare…'” she looked up. “Mrs. DeWitt made a will? I guess we’d better call Janet.” Well, this meant putting off the giving away part of the clean out! 

“Look at the bequests,” said Pamela. 

Dolly skimmed down the page, thick with the names of tenants past and present. “She made me executrix,” she said, feeling flattered and bereft all at once.

“The last bequest,” Pamela urged, and Lois added, “It’s three-quarters of the way down.” 

…the remaining manuscripts, after all other bequests have been made, together with all copyrights; likewise my journals and correspondence, I leave to my daughter, christened Gertrude DeWitt, if she can be found.

Dolly looked up at Lois and Pam, open-mouthed, utterly dumbstruck.

“So, even you didn’t know Mrs. DeWitt had a daughter?” Pam demanded.

Next: Scandal at the Arms

Dolly rallies the Magdalena Arms tenants to join the hunt for Mrs. DeWitt’s mysterious daughter and inadvertently uncovers a serious health code violation!

Check back often this weekend for bonus episodes! We’re posting once or twice a day in honor of LGBTQ+ Pride.

Find all the previous episodes here; or start reading from the first episode.

Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode IX

In our last episode, Lois, Pam, and Dolly found Mrs. DeWitt’s will while cleaning her apartment — and discovered that their beloved landlady had a daughter no one knew about. The flabbergasted trio begin to speculate as to when and where Mrs. DeWitt produced the mysterious Gertrude DeWitt.

Missed the earlier episodes? You can find them all here. Or start from the beginning with Episode I and use the “next” button at the top the screen to move between episodes.

Missing Heiress

Dolly burst into the hallway, will in hand, Lois and Pam six feet behind. She couldn’t stay in the stuffy parlor a second longer—the flood of emotions had her spinning like a whirligig. She wanted simultaneously to shout the news from the housetop and to rush down to the sub-basement storeroom and tear off the rest of the molding as an outlet for her astonished joy. Mrs. DeWitt had a daughter! Dolly’s heart twanged with new hope. Somewhere, there was a younger version of Harriet, waiting to be found. There could be no better bequest than this living, breathing descendant, no, not even the walnut bedroom set and bust of Shakespeare Mrs. DeWitt had left her!

“I bet this was why her family kicked her out!” Dolly exclaimed.

“Or did it happen during her wild years in Berlin?” Pamela asked, evidently following her own train of thought.

“When did she reunite with Mrs. Payne-Putney and get put in charge of the Magdalena Arms?” Lois demanded. “Does anyone know?”

All the tenants had heard stories of Mrs. DeWitt’s colorful past; how she was cast out from her wealthy family, the years working as a chanteuse in Berlin nightclubs, her more genteel association with the Bay City Shakespeare Company, and the boarding school friendship with Lily LaPorte (later Mrs. Payne-Putney) that had led to the establishment of the Magdalena Arms.

The had all listened to their landlady’s burbling stream of reminiscence with half an ear. Now it was too late to ask questions, to fill in the gaps, or untangle contradictions. “How on earth are we going to find this person?” Lois broke the silence that had fallen as the three women pondered Mrs. DeWitt’s hazy history.

“We’ll hire a detective,” Pam began in her old take-charge way, then paused, “except, I’m not sure if they’re essential workers.”

Dolly smacked her fist into her other hand. “Listen! We don’t need to hire any private dicks, essential or not! We’ve got a whole houseful of brainy girls just twiddling their thumbs!” Before either Lois or Pamela could stop her, she strode to the back-hall doorway, where the old-fashioned breakfast gong still hung, and sounded it with a quick clang-clang-clang that echoed through the building.

“Dolly no!” Lois exclaimed. “No large gatherings!” She tugged at Pamela. “I think we’d better be going!”

But Pamela wasn’t paying attention. She was staring, mesmerized, over Dolly’s shoulder. Lois gasped and clapped a hand to her masked mouth. Dolly swung around to see Lon, who’d evidently just emerged from Angelo’s hair salon. Lon’s stylish, close-cropped head made it plain what they’d been up to! Behind them was Angelo, key in hand as he turned to lock the salon door.  At the sight of his unexpected audience, he froze.

Next: The Magdalena Girls Rally ’round

Finding a missing heir is just the sort of puzzle the tenants need to distract them from their pandemic woes, but is there more serious trouble secreted in one of the small apartments — something more basic than boredom, anxiety, depression, irritability, rebelliousness and a mad desire to break free of all strictures? Is someone at the Magdalena Arms going hungry?

Tune in every Friday (or even oftener) for a new episode!

Find all the previous episodes here; or start reading from the first episode.

Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode X

In our last episode, Dolly, Lois, and Pamela discovered that Mrs. DeWitt has a mysterious daughter. Just as Dolly rallies the Magdalena Arms tenants to search for the missing heiress, Angelo and Lon emerge from Angelo’s shuttered hair salon, where Angelo has given Lon an illicit trim.

Missed the earlier episodes? You can find them all hereOr start from the beginning with Episode I and use the “next” button at the top the screen to move between episodes.

The Magdalena Arms Rallies ‘Round

“Lon! Angelo! What were you thinking?” Dolly scolded. She had to force herself to assume a severity she didn’t feel; she envied Lon their professional cut, and by the look in Pamela’s eyes, she wasn’t alone.

“What’s wrong? Is someone sick?” 

It was Phyllis, bursting out of the basement stairway in response to the breakfast gong. When she caught sight of Lon and Angelo she stopped so abruptly that Laura, just behind her, nearly crashed into her civil-service colleague. “Lon—Angelo!” Phyllis cried in dismay. “What were you thinking?”

“What happened?” Maxie skittered to a stop on the landing overlooking the hallway. “What did Lon do?”

Above her, heads poked over the bannister on the third, fourth, and fifth floors.

“They got themselves an illegal haircut,” Dolly told Maxie grimly.

“Oh!” said Maxie. And Dolly could have sworn that her old friend gave a sigh of relief under her mask.

What did she think Lon had done? Dolly wondered.

Phyllis was lecturing the guilty pair. “”These rules exist for a reason. You two have endangered the whole building!”

“Plus visitors!” Lois added.

“We wore masks!” Angelo defended himself. “I’m bleaching my scissors now!” 

“It’s my fault,” Lon spoke for the first time. “I pushed him.”

“I’m sure Lon’s very very sorry,” Maxie called from above, like Juliet defending Romeo.

Lon stayed mum, but their face above the mask showed no signs of remorse.

“The fact remains, Lon, that you’ve made Angelo liable for eviction.” Laura’s gentle voice was grave.

“That can’t be true!” Angelo’s voice was high with alarm.

“If you want to kick someone out, kick out me—”

“I’m not saying he should be, I’m just pointing out—”

“Now everyone, calm down,” Dolly’s voice carried to the fifth floor and drowned out the confused clamor of contending voices. “This isn’t a public hearing! I didn’t ring the gong because Angelo gave Lon a trim—which is very serious, and will certainly be dealt with— but because we’ve got Mrs. DeWitt’s missing heir to find!”

“Missing what? Missing hair?” Terry asked from the third floor. Terry had just gotten home from a stressful supermarket shop, and was both bushed and bewildered by the unexpected hullaballoo.

Heir, missing heir,” Dolly repeated. “Or heiress, I should say. Turns out Mrs. DeWitt left a daughter!”

Dolly waited until the hubbub of exclamations had died down before continuing, “The way I see it, we might as well take advantage of the fact that most of us have empty hours to fill, and put our heads together to find this girl—well, not really of course,” she added hastily. “Putting our heads together, I mean. I just meant—”

“We know you were speaking metaphorically,” Maxie called down. “But how’ll this work? Should we just all do internet searches for ‘Harriet DeWitt’ ‘Bay City’ daughter or something? The libraries are closed, and the city offices…”

Pam held up a hand. “Lois and I will be coordinating efforts.” Even with a plaid mask and butchered hair, she commanded attention. Next to her Lois had whipped out a steno pad and was taking notes. “As Dolly pointed out,” Pam continued in her carrying contralto, “There’s a lot of unused talent in the Magdalena Arms.  You—” She pointed at Maxie—“You can work your old press contacts; maybe Mamie—” here, Pam couldn’t help wrinkling her nose in distaste as she named Bay City’s notorious gossip columnist—“will have heard something.”

“Of course!” said Maxie. “If anyone’s got the dirt on Mrs. DeWitt it will be Mamie!” 

“I’m putting down Janet for legal research,” Lois said. “Surely there will be a copy of the birth certificate somewhere, and perhaps other legal documents.”

“I can help with public records!” “—with city files!” Phyllis and Laura chorused, then laughed self-consciously as they exchanged a look.

“What can I do?” Kay’s query floated down from the fifth floor. “I’m just a clarinet player. I’ve got no detecting expertise.” 

“You know the music world,” Pamela called back, her face turned up, hands cupped around her mask-covered mouth. “You can work on Mrs. DeWitt’s days as a chanteuse!”

“I have some contacts in Berlin,” Maxie put in.

Lois scribbled furiously, “And there’s Jackie, too, for the theater side. Perhaps Mrs. DeWitt confided to one of her friends in the Bay City Shakespeare Society.”

Terry was conferring with someone behind her. She turned back to the stairwell. “Sylvia want to know, what can they do?” Before anyone below could respond, she held up a hand, “Wait a second, did you ask—what? Oh, okay.” Turning back she reported, “She said that Patricia said she doesn’t have time to help out because she’s still in school.” 

“That’s fine!” the response from below was universal.

“She should concentrate on her studies,” Angelo added.

For the time-being, Pamela announced, after conferring with Dolly and Lois, the rest of the tenants would be assigned to help Dolly sort through Mrs DeWitt’s belongings. “With a fine-toothed comb!” Dolly said. She figured that given Mrs. DeWitt’s penchant for saving, and given the higgledy-piggledy state her possessions were in, this would take a least a few weeks.

“This will be a wonderful project for the unemployed tenants,” Phyllis said to Laura in a low voice, as Pamela shouted up assignments to the tenants overhead. “This sort of distraction is tailor-made for relieving stress.”

Laura nodded her agreement. “We’re really very lucky, here at the arms, that that’s our main problem.”

“You don’t think…does Angelo need money?” Phyllis blinked earnest eyes behind her gold-rimmed glasses. “I’d hate to think that he broke the rules out of financial need!”

The two friends glanced at Angelo, who was still standing a little too close to Lon, his expression defiant.

“I think he’s just fidgety,” Laura diagnosed. “He kind of hinted he could give me a trim the other day. I doubt it was for grocery money. No,” she continued, “Everyone here has a roof over their heads, enough food to eat…” Her face was sober as she thought of the growing demand at the Bay City Food Pantry, whose efforts she’d been instructed to aid.

The social scientists had no way of knowing that on the second floor, just over their heads, the Magdalena Arms’ newest tenant was rummaging desperately in her kitchen cupboard and coming up empty.

Next: Millie

Who is that girl with the rumbling stomach on the second floor? Will she manage to find a bite to eat? And when will the rest of the Magdalena Arms crew remember the overlooked new tenant who’s been hidden away by the confinement?

Tune in every Friday (or even oftener) for a new episode!

Find all the previous episodes here; or start reading from the first episode.

Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XI

Missed the earlier episodes? You can find them all hereOr start from the beginning with Episode I and use the “next” button at the top the screen to move between episodes.

In our last episode, the Magdalena Arms girls began to pool their wits and resources to help hunt for Mrs. DeWitt’s long lost daughter and missing heir. A blot on the happy hubbub was the discovery of Angelo and Lon’s health code violation, which horrified the two social scientists especially. The pair were positive, however, that no one in the Arms had more serious problems than a hankering for a professional haircut, little knowing how wrong they were!

Millie

Millie Marr sat up in bed, blinking blearily. She’d been dreaming of a fire truck, it’s alarm bell clanging, which she was chasing for some reason.

Like the previous three mornings, she’d snapped straight from uneasy sleep to nervous wakefulness. Except—

It wasn’t morning anymore. The clock on the table next to her narrow bed told her it was well past noon. 

Millie felt a moment of panic, even though there was no schedule for her to keep. And after all, she’d been up past 3 a.m. the previous night, trying repeatedly to register on the Department of Employment and Labor website, and then, when it crashed repeatedly, searching for information, how-to’s, news, and following links until she was lost in the flotsam and jetsam of the web, like a shipwrecked mariner, trying to find a piece of wreckage to cling to.

Now she felt as exhausted as any storm-battered sailor. On top of that, there was a hollow feeling in her stomach that was impossible to ignore. Millie climbed out of bed and made her way to the kitchen.

It was a short trip—just across the room of her tiny studio in Bay City. Two months ago she’d felt lucky to have found an attractive, affordable home at a convenient distance from her new job. But after spending the past two-and-a-half weeks penned up in this one room, excepting brief forays to the grocery store, the studio walls were closing in on her.

She became aware of voices coming from the hallway, a distant, excited buzz. She went to the front door and looked out the peep hole, but saw nothing. She pressed her ear to the wood.

“Dirt…DeWitt” she heard, then some mumbling followed by what sounded like “contacts in Berlin!”

Whatever the mysterious phrases meant, they had nothing to do with her. 

She returned to the kitchen and filled the percolator at the sink. But when she dipped her spoon in the coffee tin for a second scoop, she scraped metal. She upended the tin and banged the bottom, eking out another half teaspoon. Then…nothing.

“Noooo…” She couldn’t help moaning softly. 

It was one thing to be hungry, but to run out of coffee too!

Millie sank into a straight-backed chair as the room spun around her. She felt as empty as the coffee tin—hungry, jobless, friendless, cast adrift in a strange city. And now not even that little bit of zip from caffeine, to help her meet this series of misfortunes!

Only a short time ago, Millie’s prospects were bright. She’d arrived in Bay City fresh from graduate school, thrilled to have nabbed a job as assistant archivist at the Bay City Historical Society. She’d been barely aware of a pesky little flu wreaking havoc in other parts of the world. Millie had always been far more absorbed by the past than the present.

And when she did glance at the news or overhear the anxious talk as she stood in line at the grocery store or waited for the bus to the Historical Society, she’d only thought, well, I’m not planning to go out on the town anyway; or, I always wear gloves at the archive–nothing new there!

But she couldn’t ignore the health order that shuttered the Society. Even then, she’d expected the shutdown to be brief and had filled her time with a webinar on metadata while she waited for the Society to reopen. Then the health order had been extended–and extended again.

And last week her contract had been cancelled.

Sitting in her chair Millie stared blankly at the kitchen counter with the gleaming percolator and the empty sink strainer for a long moment. 

Then she jerked herself to her feet, her mouth compressed into a thin line. She’d weathered hardships before. Hadn’t she put herself through college and graduate school after the foster-care system turned her loose? She’d written the book on making do with meager means those long lean years!

She busied herself with breakfast–weak coffee and dry toast from the last of the bread. She reminded herself, as she ate, of Flora Jernfelt, 1855-1932, Loon Lake pioneer and later Bay City resident. Millie had been cataloging Flora’s diary before the Society’s closure, a fascinating document, which mixed shopping lists and recipes for corn-meal mush with reflections on Bay City’s burgeoning dairy industry and her own family’s never-ending struggle for survival. Flora had pulled through a pandemic, Millie reminded herself. She could too.

In fact, why not use the last five dollars in her wallet to buy a big bag of cornmeal mush and try Flora’s recipe? Cheered by this plan, Millie dressed and attempted to tame her her overgrown gamine hair style before giving up and covering the wild wisps with a sunhat. She donned a mask fashioned from an old striped shirt and added a pair of oversized sunglasses for good measure.

The earlier hubbub had died away and the hallway was deserted when Millie locked the door behind her and descended the curving stairs to the grand entrance hall. She’d fallen in love with the Magdalena Arms’ air of bygone spendor during her hunt for an affordable apartment. Now she wondered if she should have looked further and found something cheaper.

In a corner of the lavish entry her landlady was having a masked confabulation with two others. One was Millie’s neighbor, Angelo, who owned the hair salon. The other was a tall, angular blonde of indeterminate sex. Angelo usually gave Millie a friendly greeting when he saw her, but today he looked unhappy.

“I know I’ve let things slide in the past,” their landlady was saying, as Millie slipped past them. “But I simply can’t anymore!“

The words blew a cold chill over Millie as she quietly let herself out the front door. Were they talking about overdue rent? Was Angelo being threatened with eventual eviction?

She had enough money in the bank to cover next month’s rent, and the month after–if she didn’t eat. But surely she’d be able to collect unemployment before too long?

Millie wondered just how long she could make a bag of cornmeal mush last. The Jernfelt family had survived the panic of 1873 purely on mush, supplemented by pork fat and potatoes on Sundays.

The street was mostly empty as Millie hurried towards the grocery store, with a waiting, watching quality. She passed an older man walking a small, overweight dog. Both she and the man veered towards opposite edges of the sidewalk, giving each other a wide berth.

At the A&P there was a line outside the door. Millie joined the end, toeing her chalk-marked X. The line was silent, patient, the shoppers like cowed refugees shuffling in some internment camp food line. Millie dug in her purse for something to read, but she’d forgotten to bring her current issue of Archivist Annals, and had nothing.

She looked at her fellow-queuers. Some wore cheerful masks, florals and polka dots, some store-bought masks designed for woodworkers or nurses. It frustrated Millie that she couldn’t see their faces. She’d always studied expressions as a way of taking the social temperature, forecasting sun, showers, or thunder, and planning accordingly. As the line lurched forward another six feet, she considered just how cut-off she was, as isolated as a lighthouse keeper, watching ships pass in the distance. Would she go mad, as was their wont?

Finally, a masked guard waved her through the A&P’s entrance. Once inside the store, Millie snatched a big bag of cornmeal from the decimated baking aisle, and then danced around other shoppers as she hurried to the coffee and tea department.

There were none but economy-sized cans of coffee left on the shelf. Millie looked at the price and at her bag of corn meal mush. She couldn’t get both.

With slow, dragging steps, Millie stood in line, paid for her purchase, and left the store. After standing a moment, irresolute, she turned towards the Dockside neighborhood, where a number of specialty stores had opened in former warehouses. It was a long walk, and the prices these chic little stores charged were exorbitant, but she faintly remembered seeing an Italian emporium that sold coffee by weight. Perhaps she could get enough to at least brew a pot periodically. On Sundays, say.

As the long blocks passed and the cornmeal grew heavy on her arm, Millie trudged doggedly on. Stopping to shift her burden from one arm to the other, a flash of color caught her eye.

An old woman wearing a Marimekko mask and clutching an empty plastic bag hurried past her. Millie’s gaze followed her, as she joined a queue that stretched the rest of the block and turned the corner at the far end. 

Intrigued, Millie walked to the end of the block, observing that the line was almost entirely composed of older women, whose tired footwear and frayed seams indicated they were the older, poorer Dockside residents. Her eyes widened as she turned the corner and saw that the line extended several blocks before turning another corner.

Millie turned to a masked young man wearing an orange vest and holding a sign that said Six Feet Required. “What’s this line for?”

“Food,” said the man. “This goes to a Bay City Food Pantry Giveaway.”

“Giveaway? You mean—” Millie caught her breath—“it’s free? Do I—that is, how would one register? What are the requirements?”

The young man seemed to smile behind his mask. “All you have to do is get in line.”

Millie walked back to the other end of the block and got in line.

Next

Pushed to his limit, usually happy-go-lucky hairdresser Angelo clashes with Dolly while Lon grows increasingly desperate for a release from the prison of confinement.

Tune in every Friday (or even oftener) for a new episode!

Find all the previous episodes here; or start reading from the first episode.

Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XII

In previous episodes Angelo, owner of the shuttered salon Angel Hair, was discovered giving an illicit haircut to Lon. New-girl Millie, the tenant that no one remembers, slipped out of the Magdalena Arms in search of food and overheard landlady Dolly lecturing the guilty pair about the troublesome trim.

Missed the earlier episodes? You can find them all hereOr start from the beginning with Episode I and use the “next” button at the top the screen to move between episodes.

Lon Seeks Solitude

As usual, Dolly started out her lecture stern, swearing she wouldn’t let standards slide, and then swiftly softened, until by the end of her speech she was pleading. “Personally, Lon,” she addressed the silent student of the sea, “I think your hair looks terrific. Angelo did a bang-up job! But do you see the situation I’m in? If someone snitched and the health department came down on you hard, I’d be helpless as a kitten to protect you! Don’t put me in that position, please!”

“Okay,” said Lon.

“I knew I could count on you!” Lon guessed Dolly was beaming beneath her mask. She turned to the shorter stylist. “And Angelo, don’t let yourself be persuaded again, all right? At least not on Magdalena Arms premises.” She leaned forward and lowered her voice. “I hear some stylists are doing a bang-up business in home visits.” 

“I’m not planning on doing home visits,” the salon-owner’s voice was indignant. “I don’t think it’s safe. I only cut Lon’s hair because I consider him family.”

“Well—that’s good,” said Dolly, backtracking. “Best to stick to the rules!” Lon glanced at Angelo and saw that the usually affable boy was more piqued than penitent. 

“And if I can’t operate my business, I’m going to need a reduction in rent!”

Dolly reared back. “A reduction? Well—”

Lon didn’t need to be part of this discussion. Silently she stepped back, one step, and then another, another—

And then they vanished.

“Where’d Lon go?” Dolly interrupted Angelo’s detailed inventory of expenses and lost income.

Angelo glanced around, then shrugged. “You know Lon.”

Lon had ducked under the breakfast gong and slid silently down the back corridor, past the elevator, past the basement stairway, past the broom closet, and out the rear door to the small garden. 

It was a narrow rectangle, running the width of the building and bordered on three sides by a high brick wall. When Lon had first moved into the Magdalena Arms after her prison stint, the yard had contained nothing but weeds and a rusty metal glider with rotting cushions. But like everything else in the Arms, Dolly had spiffed and spandied the small space until it was magazine-picture perfect.

Now a path of crushed stone made a spiral around the miniature fountain that was half-hidden by a bushy border of ferns and agapanthus. The sickly tree against the back wall was gone, replaced by an arbor where grapevines twined. Clematis climbed the wall from the other corner, and its perfume hung in the air. A growing clique of Arms inhabitants were fond of gathering in the garden of a summer evening to smoke Ramona’s inexhaustible supply of weed. Many nights, the smell of marijuana twined with the garden scents, drifting up to the apartments above, an odiferous invitation to the MaryJane gang, as Dolly called them, to amble out the back door or descend the fire escape—

Which rattled slightly, interrupting Lon’s train of thought. Squinting upward, Lon saw a figure in an over-sized sweatshirt, dark hair straggling down the back, disappearing through a second-floor window. 

Patricia, probably. Sylvia’s daughter. Lon’s presence had flushed the college girl from her refuge and sent her scurrying back to the small apartment she shared with her mother and Terry, an apartment that must feel like prison to the kid.

A faint shudder passed over Lon at the thought. She could sympathize.

Over by the lavender a bee buzzed. Above Kay was playing scales. Terry’s voice came from the third floor window, “Patty honey, I made…” A few doors down, a baby wailed. A hint of breeze ruffled the grape leaves and for a moment Lon could almost imagine it was the rise and fall of waves that they heard.

They closed their eyes. The sounds blended into a soothing symphony. None of them—not the bee, Kay, Terry, the baby, or the grape leaves—wanted anything from Lon. They were alone, finally alone. They could feel the solitude seeping into their being, satisfying a thirst no one else seemed to share. Except maybe poor Patty.

Then there were voices in the corridor. Lon cocked an ear. The sounds got louder, closer. She could make out Jackie, querulously demanding, “What am I, as an actor, supposed to do?” and Ramona’s more muffled reply. 

When the door to the back garden swung open, Lon had already leapt to the fire escape and was silently climbing up, past the new girl’s spartan apartment on the second floor, past the curtain-shrouded opening that hid Patty on the third floor; he paused briefly on the fourth, where the white curtains of his own dwelling-place bellied in the breeze. Maxie’s throaty chuckle drifted out the window, “Mamie, you’re too much!” and Lon started climbing again, up, up, up…

Next: Food Pantry Surprise

Millie’s free groceries pose an unexpected problem for the intrepid preserver of Bay City History!

Tune in every Friday, for a new episode! (at least until the author’s work situation changes)

Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XIII

In previous episodes new girl Millie was low on groceries, money and morale when she stumbled upon a Bay City Food Pantry giveaway. Will the bulging bag be enough to bolster her, body and soul, until unemployment payments kick in?

Missed the earlier episodes? You can find them all hereOr start from the beginning with Episode I and use the “next” button at the top the screen to move between episodes.

The Pork Loin

Two and a half hours after she’d joined the food pantry line, A much-wilted Millie pushed open the door to the Magdalena Arms and lurched inside, carrying her cornmeal mush makings in one hand and a bulky bag in the other. Her overgrown gamine wisps were matted to her forehead and her mask was damp around the edges. Her back hurt from standing and her arm and shoulder were sore from the weight of her new groceries. But now she had food!

She staggered up the curving stairs to the second floor. Music came from Angelo’s apartment across the hall—he was playing Man of La Mancha again. The music was still audible when Millie closed her studio door behind her, but she ignored it, depositing the bulging bag on the little wooden table she used for meals and washing her hands carefully at the kitchen sink. Wiping her hands she dug into the bag, eager to investigate its contents.

A can of mixed fruit was on top, cushioned by a bag of rice. Three large oranges followed, and four small, bruised apples. The can must have dented them, Millie diagnosed. Honestly, whose idea was it to put a can on top of fresh fruit? She fetched a bowl for the fruit and put the can and rice in the cupboard. Then she pulled out two onions and a bunch of celery. Millie frowned at the celery. She’d never been fond of the vegetable. Still, it was food, and she could fry it with the onion and add it to the rice.

At the bottom of the bag there was a mess of little potatoes and five large grizzled carrots. Underneath them was something large, hard, and cold. Millie hauled it out and let it fall on the table with a thunk.

It was an enormous chunk of frozen meat. Millie peered at the label, which read, pork loin. It stretched the width of her table, bulging as wide as Rosie the Riveter’s bicep. It looked like a prehistoric club. She poked it with a dubious finger. It was frozen solid.

Millie was not much of a chef, and had certainly never attempted such a large cut of meat, but she was resourceful, and she had recipe books, even if they were mostly from the 19th century.

But before she dove into recipe research, she had to stow the meat away.

There she ran into a problem. No matter which way she wedged it, the pork loin simply wouldn’t fit into her tiny freezer. 

Well, then she would butcher it, Millie decided. She put some wax paper under the meat, after managing to peel off it’s wrappings, showering the table and floor with frozen crystals. Then she fetched her largest knife, which was still dwarfed by the loin. Cautiously, and then with more vigor, she sawed at the frozen lump. More ice crystals flew and puddled on the table. After a few minutes Millie wiped perspiration from her brow and examined her progress. She’d barely made a dent. And I’ve dulled the blade! she realized, examining her cooking knife in dismay.

What would Flora do? The intrepid pioneer wouldn’t have let herself be defeated by a mere pork loin! She’d have hacked it into manageable pieces with an axe while her sourdough was rising and she was boiling the wash water.

Of course, the whole Jenks clan would have quickly consumed the loin in a single sitting, probably after spit-roasting it over the large fireplace in the dugout they’d occupied on Loon Lake before their move to Bay City. Primitive as it was, the Jenks old-fashioned dugout was probably better equipped than Millie’s modern kitchen. They had not only axes and knives, but ice caves, and a wide variety of large pots, not to mention washtubs, churns and the like.

Millie scrubbed, peeled and sliced a carrot, snacking on the sticks as she studied the obdurate chunk of meat. If she just had a pot big enough to boil the darned loin!

But wait—there what about that old-fashioned kitchen in the bowels of her new home? When she’d collected her keys before moving in, her landlady had insisted on giving Millie what she’d called “the grand tour” of the Magdalena Arms. Millie had oohed and ahhed politely over the communal lounge, knowing she’d probably never use it—she’d gotten enough of communal living growing up.  She’d been more interested in the building’s history as a women-only boarding house, and the landlady, flattered by her interest, had taken her down to what had once been the basement dining hall, a wainscotted room with a built-in buffet, otherwise empty, except for a folding table stowed in the corner.

“We used to have a whole bunch of big round tables, and on Saturdays and Sundays the girls would lounge in their pajamas until almost noon, drinking coffee and eating waffles,” the landlady waxed nostalgic. “I thought about turning it into another couple of units, but it turns out the ceiling’s too low to meet Bay City building codes. Beverly—she’s one of our girls, excuse me, I mean tenants—she said we ought to make it an exercise room. You know, weights and benches and jump ropes. Mats for that new-fangled eastern exercise, yoga. Would that appeal to you?”

Millie had decided to be honest. “Not really.” 

Now she remembered that next to the former dining room there’d been a roomy kitchen—with an equally roomy refrigerator. The gabby landlady had told her it was still used from time to time for building-wide parties. More information Millie had discarded as being of no interest.

But now her brain seized on the neglected nugget of knowledge like a squirrel discovering a forgotten nut. If they used that big old frigadaire for parties, it followed that it was in working order.

She looked at the loin, lying like road kill on her little table.

The solution was simple: she’d stash the meat in the forgotten kitchen’s frigidaire; then later, when the rest of the tenants were abed, she’d sneak downstairs and cook it—boil it, or hack it into hash or something.

Next: Fortunes Rising and Declining

While Jackie’s show has closed, Ramona’s cannabis business is booming! Can the couple survive the strain of these conflicting fortunes?

Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XIV

In our last episode, Lon sought solitude in the Magdalena Arms garden before fleeing other tenants who have their own need for respite. In this episode readers will meet or renew their acquaintance with Ramona, erstwhile bad girl, currently employed as a cannabis store manager, and her younger girlfriend, the frustrated actress Jackie, as they toke and talk with frazzled landlady Dolly, trying to figure out when Mrs. DeWitt’s missing daughter might have been born.

Missed the earlier episodes? You can find them all hereOr start from the beginning with Episode I and use the “next” button at the top the screen to move between episodes.

“But lots of theaters are doing virtual things,” said Ramona, flicking on her lighter and inhaling.

Jackie sighed hugely, as she settled herself next to Ramona on the wooden bench by the burbling backyard fountain. She took the pipe from her girlfriend and after sucking in the soothing smoke, said: “Ramona, the kind of acting I do is about interacting. It’s about physical presence, and what happens between actors when they really listen.” She gesticulated helplessly, “It’s everything that’s forbidden these days!”

After this effort to express herself, Jackie sagged back in her corner of the bench. At twenty-eight she was still  a slender sprite of a girl, wearing her usual uniform of jeans and black turtleneck. Her piquant, expressive features and her youthful energy had finally brought her the beginnings of onstage success, just before the pandemic hit. Now the tempestuous series of emotions that had once chased each other across her mobile face, as if blown by a lively spring breeze, had been whittled down to a monotonous trio: indignation, dejection, and anger.

Ramona held out her hand for the pipe, searching for something to say. Jackie was inconsolable on the subject of her cancelled show, and every attempt Ramona had made to comfort her served only to aggravate the thwarted thespian.

So the older woman stayed silent, and waited for the medical marijuana to mellow out the miffed mummer.

The screen door thunked and Dolly appeared, mask on chin, bandanna wound around her bleached curls, a furrow in her brow. “What a day!” she exclaimed. “Any for me?” 

Ramona expelled a cloud of smoke and handed the pipe to Dolly, who collapsed into a hammock chair as she sucked in a lungful. “Aaahhh.”

It always amused Ramona to recall how disturbed Dolly had been when Ramona had first introduced marijuana to the Magdalena Arms. For a long time the perturbed landlady had tried to persuade Ramona to give up her toking for more traditional cocktail hour tippling. It was only after wrenching her back while rehanging the entry hall chandelier that Dolly had swapped her martinis for “Mary Jane” as she insisted on calling it.

“Hard day at the office?” Ramona asked. “I’m beat too. Business is booming, which means we barely get a break.”

Dolly was too intent on her own concerns even take in this silver lining in the cloud of pandemic bad news. “Well, first Angelo gave Lon an illicit trim, and unfortunately he got caught, and I had to play the heavy. Then—” Dolly stopped and chewed her lip. “Well, never mind. I don’t want to broadcast tenant business. Oh, but—” She sat up and leaned forward, waving the pipe energetically—“You haven’t heard the news! Mrs. DeWitt had a daughter!”

The story of the dramatic discovery distracted even the solipsistic soliloquist, and Ramona’s mind was already whirring into action as Dolly wound up, “So we’re going to organize ourselves into a kind of detective bureau and track this girl down!”

As the green entrepreneur opened her mouth to get more details, Jackie burst out, “Wouldn’t it be something if it was a Magdalena Arms girl? What about Ilsa? She’s adopted!”

“Ilsa the clog dancer?” Dolly narrowed her eyes and gazed at the agapanthus, as if looking for Ilsa and her clogs. “I dimly remember her. Was she on the third floor, before I renovated?”

“She’s not a clog dancer,” Jackie informed the landlady, “She’s a publicity girl, for a cartoon company.” Her mouth drooped. “She’s probably doing great through this. People can still draw, in confinement.”

“Don’t worry Jackie,” Dolly reached over and nudged her with the pipe. “The pandemic can’t last forever. Pretty soon you’ll be back onstage, and more in demand than ever.”

Ramona knew Dolly meant well—the landlady had always had a soft spot for the aspiring actress—but this was the sort of remark that generally provoked a long self-pitying rant from Jackie about how time didn’t stand still, how her very identity was in question, how disoriented and despairing she felt. 

As Jackie took a breath and opened her mouth, Ramona interjected, “Mrs. DeWitt’s daughter can’t be Ilsa, not unless Mrs. D. got pregnant when she was in her late forties. This mystery daughter must already be a mature woman herself.”

“Why, you’re right!” Dolly laughed, a little self-consciously. “I guess I’ve been picturing the DeWitt descendant as a young girl, you know, with huge hairbows, like in those old pictures in Mrs. DeWitt’s scrapbook.

“You’re an orphan!” Jackie looked at Ramona with awe. “What if…”

“I’m not that mature,” Ramona fished a scrap of paper from one pocket of her plaid pants and pulled a pencil from the other. “Let’s figure this out. When do we think Mrs. DeWitt had this kid?” At Dolly’s helpless shrug, she declared, “Well, that’s our first order of business!”

This was the kind of logic problem Ramona enjoyed. Patiently she questioned Dolly, and scribbled notes: the pre-war boarding school years, the estrangement from her family, the years as a chanteuse in Berlin, “I’d guess she had her daughter in the early twenties?” Dolly hazarded.

“We’re not guessing, we’re establishing a date range,” reminded Ramona, writing busily. 

Meanwhile Jackie, in a hazy counterpoint was listing off all the orphans in their circle. “Isn’t Lon adopted? And what about Arlene, that creepy girl who lived here in ’65 or ’66, around when I moved in? Pam has no family, right? And wasn’t Beverly raised by her aunt?” She clutched the arm of the wooden bench, her voice suddenly panicked. “Why are so many of us orphans? What must it mean?”

“It’s just coincidence,” Ramona tried to calm her paranoid paramour. “And Pamela’s got a family, they’re just not on speaking terms. Dolly, when did you say Mrs. DeWitt was born?” 

“She said 1900,” Dolly replied, as Jackie muttered, “It’s just like in Village of the Damned, all those creepy kids…it must mean something…”

“But I always suspected she shaved a couple years off,” Dolly continued. To Jackie she said, “The Arms has always catered to castaways, kid—there’s no big conspiracy. Why, you were one yourself, once!”

Jackie leaned back, open-mouthed. “Am Mrs. DeWitt’s heir?”

Her elders abandoned their attempts to reason with the loopy girl, as they calculated birthdate ranges and Ramona’s scrap of paper got covered with their figuring. The slant of the late afternoon sun cast half the garden in shadow and gilded Dolly’s bleached blond curls, as she leaned forward to peer at the paper. Above them unseen residents began to stir, starting preparations for their evening meals, the punctuation point of another empty day. From an apartment on the second floor came a thunk-thunk-thunk, as if someone was chopping carrots, or maybe hammering ice for a cocktail shaker. Maxie’s laugh floated out on the evening breeze, along with the smell of frying onions. A radio blared on and was turned down to a low buzz of news, which was drowned out by Terry’s voice calling, “Patsy honey, how do you feel about a salad?”

“Okay,” said Ramona finally. “Assuming Mrs. DeWitt did not have her out-of-wedlock child after becoming housemother at the Magdalena Arms in 1924, and based on calculating her fertility beginning between 1910-1915, given the uncertainty of her birthdate,  we’re looking for a woman somewhere between the ages of 53 and 67.”

“Really? So old?” Dolly pulled the scribbled over scrap out of Ramona’s hand and peered at it. “’60% ROI,’” she read. “Mimimum start-up cost, $2 to $5k.” She wrinkled her brow. “I don’t see that date range.”

Ramona snatched the sheet back. “Those are about something else, never mind them. I’ll copy down all our calculations and pass them on to Pamela. She’s organizing things, you said?”

She’d intended to keep her new scheme quiet for a while, but it was too late.

“I know what that’s about,” Jackie stiffened. “Ramona wants to cash in on the cannabis boom and open her own shop!” There was a bitter edge to the comment that made Ramona wince.

“Well, good for you!” Dolly’s heartiness, Ramona knew, was only more fuel to Jackie’s resentment. The younger girl jumped to her feet. 

“I’m going up,” she announced abruptly. “Capitalism is a big buzz kill!” 

Dolly blinked fuzzily as the door slammed behind the irate actress. “What’d I say?”

Next: In the Night Kitchen

We return to the Millie’s wrestling match with her pork loin, as she descends to the deserted basement kitchen late at night and has an unexpected encounter.

Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XV

In previous episodes, unemployed archivist Millie Marr brought home an oversized pork loin from the Bay City Food Pantry. With no place to store the frozen meat, she resolved to make a clandestine trip to the building’s ancient basement kitchen to either cut up or cook her unexpected bounty.

Missed the earlier episodes? You can find them all hereOr start from the beginning with Episode I and use the “next” button at the top the screen to move between episodes.

The Magdalena Arms at Night–Part 1

It was past midnight when Millie cautiously opened her studio door. The building had been exceptionally lively that evening, beginning with the buzz of voices from the garden that had kept the unemployed archivist company as she boiled up her first batch of mush. “For me, as an actress,” one of the garden group kept repeating in a carrying voice, while Millie stirred.

More salt, Millie wrote on her copy of Flora’s recipe. Maybe the Jernfelt clan had used the mush as a bed for their salt pork; the recipes of yesteryear were vague about so many details. Maybe some grilled onions? Millie’s pen hovered over the xeroxed recipe. What else would help? The mush she’d made was filling, yes, but disappointingly flavorless.

On second thought, she scratched out the grilled onions. The student of Bay City pioneer life decided to persevere in fidelity to the past over the more flavorful present. Hmmm…would it perhaps be possible to turn a chunk of her loin into a style of salt pork similar to the 19th century staple? 

After she’d eaten, she researched recipes, then lay down on her couch-bed and read while she waited for night and quiet to fall. But it was hard to concentrate on Flora’s diary from 1872 (“half of wheat crop spoiled by hail; cousin George brought the headcheese”) with one ear cocked to the sounds of the other tenants. There was more running up and down stairs than usual. “Careful, don’t drop it!” she heard the landlady cry out, and someone responding in a phlegmy, throaty contralto, “Well, it weighs a ton—what’d she collect, iron ingots?” The door down the hall where the couple lived slammed loudly, and Millie heard the older one, the redhead with a pair of sharp eyes behind her cats-eye glasses, say, “Jackie don’t be that way,” before the door opened and closed again, this time more softly. 

Finally, quiet fell; and then the deeper silence of lights clicking off, soft conversations dwindling down, eyes closing, the breath of two dozen people slowing. It felt to Millie like the whole building exhaled and settled to sleep, and she felt soothed by the tranquility, and at the same time exhilarated to be alert and awake in the slumbering night, mush in her stomach and a project in her head. She peered out her peephole, confirming the coast was clear, then picked up the bag with the pork loin and her other supplies. Switching off her light, she cracked her door—then closed it instantly. Out of the corner of her eye she’d spotted a hulking silhouette, rising out of the stairwell. 

She applied her eye to the peephole again.

It was only Angelo, her cross-the-hall neighbor, who she’d observed earlier that day, on the receiving end of a dressing-down from their landlady.

It was a trick of the light that had made him loom so large. The slight young man with his round face under luxuriant dark hair coiffed in a Presley-style pompadour, shrank back to his usual size as he came down the hall, swaying slightly. He stood unsteadily, fumbling for his keys, and with some difficulty unlocked his door. After he disappeared inside, he pulled the door closed behind him a little too forcefully. 

Angelo was…drunk? Where had he been drinking? With whom?

The why, Millie thought she knew, and it sobered her. Like her, Angelo was feeling the pandemic’s economic pinch. Maybe she should tell her neighbor about the Bay City Food Pantry? But Millie hated to stick her nose in other people’s affairs; for one thing, it opened you up to the same treatment, and advice, however well-intentioned, irked the independent girl. Part of her wanted to remind her neighbor in misfortune: Drinking isn’t going to make your money problems disappear! Yet on the other hand, who was she to tell the hairdresser how to manage his difficulties?

Millie waited a long moment, eye glued to the peephole, until she heard the bolt turn in the door across the hall. Then quickly, quietly, she picked up her heavy bag, eased out the door, carefully closing it behind her, and stole soundlessly down the stairs. 

Next: Angelo’s Hangover

Despite his drinking, Angelo’s myriad problems refuse to be drowned in slumber, instead multiplying as the insomniac stylist’s anxious musings spins out of control–until they are dwarfed by an unexpected discovery!

Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XVI

In previous episodes, unemployed coiffeur Angelo gave Lon a clandestine trim–only to be accidentally discovered by the almost all the occupants of the Magdalena Arms. At the end of his financial rope, the frustrated stylist demanded a rent reduction on his closed salon “Angel Hair” from landlady Dolly. Later that night, his neighbor Millie spots him coming home…drunk?

Missed the earlier episodes? You can find them all hereOr start from the beginning with Episode I and use the “next” button at the top the screen to move between episodes.

Angelo Has A Headache

Three cocktails was two too many, Angelo realized, as he managed to lock his studio door. The usually gay apartment seemed full of sinister wavering shadows as he stumbled across the room to the bathroom. The bullfighter poster menaced him from the wall and he barked his shin on the edge of his travertine marble coffee table, while his couch-bed, still wearing its daytime dressing of oversized raw-silk pillows, brooded in the corner. In the dark, the eggplant-colored upholstery turned black and gave it a somber air. It was as if his lovingly-decorated apartment was mirroring his own mood. 

The happy-go-lucky hairdresser had never been a heavy drinker. Not for Angelo the easy escape of alcohol, even in times of hardship. But tonight, when he’d met Phil and Javier in Phil’s garage for a clandestine cocktail, he’d overdone it. Maybe Phil poured with a heavier hand than the bartender at the Knock Knock Lounge, their usual meeting place. Maybe Angelo had gulped his gin fizz faster out of nervousness. Certainly, the whole atmosphere had fueled his unease—perching on a rickety folding chair around a makeshift table of plywood on sawhorses, surrounded by shelves filled with anti-freeze, old paint cans, broken fans, odd bits of wood and other building materials. The whole shabby hodge-podge was lit by a single bare bulb from the low ceiling, and it all made Angelo feel like some sort of counter-culture conspirator, when he merely craved some male companionship.

Yes, he loved the Magdalena Arms girls, he enjoyed his status as the only boy in the building, a sort of brother to a dozen sisters; but ever since the shutdown cut Angelo off from his nights out and the male companionship he’d always found essential, the situation had begun to sour. Even his favorites at the Arms had started to irritate him.

Take Jackie—she’d been his best friend since they met in the Meyer Method acting class almost a decade ago. She was the reason Angelo was even at the Arms, wangling him a room back when the boarding house was still women-only—officially anyway. Without her he’d have been on the street. 

Yet these days he dodged back into his studio when he spotted Jackie moping down the hallway. Yes, it was awful her show had closed, and her career had ground to a halt. But didn’t she realize that was everyone’s sad story? Didn’t she see how lucky she was, having no money worries? Ramona would keep a roof over Jackie’s head and brown rice in her pot (Jackie had gone macrobiotic), not to mention all the joints a girl could smoke and still be standing. Compared to many, she was sitting pretty!

While his situation…Angelo turned on the bathroom light and splashed cold water on his face. Dolly had hemmed and hawed when he blurted out his demand earlier, and said she’d “let him know.” Even if Dolly agreed to the rent reduction for the salon, he’d still have no money coming in, and it was a race to see which would last longer, unemployment benefits or the city’s shutdown. He, for one, wasn’t inclined to put his money on benefits beating confinement. 

Yes, He could give Jackie an earful about having your career come to a screeching halt. He’d been secretly thinking of expanding, and had even inspected a shop on the edge of the developing Dockside district that was for sale. He’d figured he could swing the payments by renting half the chairs. But now, instead of exponentially increasing the heads of hair he styled, he was pounced on by those self-appointed pandemic police, Phyllis and Laura, for giving one friend a basic trim!

“Those—those bureaucrats!” he burst out, shaking his fist and glaring at the ceiling, as if his glower could penetrate to Laura’s studio overhead, and Phyllis’s, two floors up. 

His glance fell on his reflection in the mirror, holding a toothbrush and toothpaste, a grimace contorting his face. The image was a stranger’s. He peered more closely. Had the pandemic aged him already? Where were the boyish good looks that had secured his popularity at the Knock Knock only a few months ago? Where was the cherubic smile that made some men pinch his cheeks and often led to much more pleasurable pinching? Was he going to lose his ability to attract male attention on top of everything else?

Angelo scrubbed at his teeth, drank a full glass of water, and donned his pajamas before at last falling into bed. Only to struggle back up, when he landed on the eggplant cushions. Sitting up, he lobbed the cushions at the ladderbacked chairs on the other side of the coffee table, then leaned over to pull his sheet and blanket from the antique étagère’s drawer. Flapping them open over the couchbed as best he could, he lay back down without even attempting to tuck them in. 

The room spun dizzyingly around him before finally slowing and steadying. The sheets twined around his legs like seaweed, but after a futile kick or two, he gave up, too exhausted to care.

Exhausted, yet wide awake. A jumble of images from the day played in his head like a family slide show sped up: Lon’s head underneath his scissors, as he carefully trimmed her cowlick. The way Dolly’s eyes had darted away from his when he demanded a rent reduction. Phil’s bald pate reflecting the bare bulb as he shook the silver cocktail shaker in the shadowy garage. 

Phil had been bald for years, but thinking of him reminded Angelo of an article he’d seen in Hair Today, about the run on electric clippers, and how many men were simply shaving their heads completely as a solution to this personal grooming problem. What kind of future was there for a hairstylist in a world gone bald?

Angelo’s own head was pounding, as if lice with metal clogs were dancing the fandango just where his cranium came to a point. It felt like no hangover he’d had before. A bad headache—wasn’t that an early sign, a symptom of the dread illness? 

What if Phyllis and Laura were right, and he’d risked his health to give Lon a haircut?

After all, Lon was hardly a model of adherence to health department guidelines. Confinement was foreign to her nature. More than once Angelo had spied her through the filmy curtains that hung in the salon’s streetside window, on her way out of the Arms. She’d come down the steps, looking both ways as if fearful of being followed. And she always had a bulky bag slung over one shoulder. Holding what? Angelo didn’t think she was shopping. She’d be gone for hours at a time and when she returned Angelo could swear that her hair was damp, still showing the tell-tale marks of a comb. He’d have sworn she was swimming somewhere, but how was that possible with all the pools closed?

And if not Lon, what about Javi? Angelo’s old friend had confided to the schnockered stylist, as they left Phil’s and walked the dark empty streets together, that one of his cousins had been stricken with the virus. Angelo had made shocked, sympathetic noises, but he’d forgotten to ask if Javi had been in contact with this afflicted cousin. And unlike Angelo, Javi still saw his family, at least once a week—

Angelo put his hand on his forehead. It felt hot. He sat up, and the room swirled around him again, like an oceanliner in a storm. Unsteadily, he swung his feet over the edge of the couchbed and felt for his slippers, then shuffled to the bathroom.

He was out of aspirin, and he couldn’t find his thermometer. He pushed aside aging bottles of cough syrup and pepto-bismal, tins of bandaids and ointment for bee stings. His thermometer had to be somewhere

Breathe, the increasingly anxious beautician told himself as he rummaged the medicine cabinet. Just breathe. He breathed in deeply, and something caught in his throat, provoking a spasm of coughing. Staggering out of the bathroom, he fumbled at the front door, tugging the doorknob with increasing agitation before remembering to turn the bolt. Jackie and Ramona would surely loan him some aspirin, and perhaps allay his fears. They were old friends enough that they wouldn’t mind him waking them—

In the quiet of the dim hallway he heard the stairs creak, and turned, trepidatious. Who else would be up when all the Arms were asleep? 

Relief flooded him as he spotted Beverly, tiredly trudging up the stairs at the end of her nursing shift at Bay City General. 

“Beverly!” He whispered loudly, tiptoing towards her. “Can I borrow some aspirin? Also, how long does it take—”

“Stop!” Beverly flung out a warning hand. “I’m sick!” 

“Sick?” Angelo repeated stupefied.

“I’ve got it!”

Next: In the Night Kitchen – Part 2

Millie tries to cook up a midnight batch of salt pork and is interrupted by an unexpected intruder.

Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XVII

In previous episodes: Millie has been impatiently awaiting an opportunity to descend to the Magdalena Arms’s unused common kitchen and deal with her oversized pork loin, only to be thwarted by her fellow apartment dwellers. Why are so many of them so lively this evening? Where has her cross-the-hall neighbor been that he comes home soused? Millie has no time for these mysteries, which intrude on her goal of recreating 19th century settler-style salt pork!

Missed the earlier episodes? You can find them all hereOr start from the beginning with Episode I and use the “next” button at the top the screen to move between episodes.

The Magdalena Arms at Night — Part 2

The stairs creaked as Millie tiptoed down the curving flight to the grand entryway a little after midnight. Slung over her shoulder was a canvas bag, heavy with the pork loin and other supplies for this clandestine cooking expedition. In one hand she held a sheaf of papers, the fruits of her recipe research. 

At the foot of the stairs something pointy stabbed her in the shin and she stumbled, almost dropping the closely-written recipes. Biting back a pained yelp, Millie glared down at a bronze statuette of a pensive youth holding a bow and arrow. Cupid, Millie diagnosed. A late Victorian version, given the fatuous expression and shoddy workmanship.

The insipid objet stood like a sentinel guarding a whole cluster of boxes and oddments that had evidently been dragged out of the ground floor apartment to Millie’s right. It was empty now, Millie remembered. The old lady who had lived there had died a few weeks ago, in the early days of the confinement. And now someone was cleaning out. Perhaps the Arms’s always energetic landlady was preparing for a new tenant.

Unable to help herself, Millie peered into the boxes. One held a jumble of cheap cut-glass vases. The next was more interesting, filled with old magazines—Bay City Stage, Theatre Arts. She dug down and discovered German periodicals, some dating back to the early 1920s. Her scrabbling fingers found a stiff little booklet —a ration card from 1943. “Harriet DeWitt,” Millie read softly.

Stop, Millie lectured herself sternly, as her glance strayed longingly over the other boxes. You have pork to cook. But then she glimpsed a china figurine painted in bright, clear colors. Carefully she lifted from the a box of toys and creased playing cards a small figurine of a barefoot girl, holding out a china apron full of flowers. She examined the delicate modeling intently, before flipping it over. Millie bit her lip in excitement. There was the blue X, like crossed swords. Some ignorant sorter had put this Meissen figurine out with the trash!

Irresolutely Millie stood for a moment, trying not to think of how much the barefoot flower girl was worth. Then she set it back in the box.

And then took it back out again. No reason to risk someone throwing away a valuable objet d’art out of misguided highmindedness! She knew she wasn’t a thief.

The stairs to the basement kitchen were down the back corridor, past the lounge, past the elevator. Millie couldn’t find a light switch, and groped her way down in darkness. At the foot of the stairs, to her relief, she felt a switch plate with four switches. Millie flicked them on and off, illuminating the stairs, the former dining room, and a light that flashed from somewhere beyond the dining room before finally landing on the light switch for the kitchen.

She put her bag and sheaf of papers on the big table against the wall, and looked around, noting with satisfaction a row of pots and pans hanging over the sink, and the reassuring hum of the big old frigidaire. Millie swung open the door and inspected the refrigerator’s contents: a wizened lemon and a pasteboard box piled high with pats of butter in gold foil. She opened and closed drawers and cabinets, pulling out any piece of cooking equipment that struck her as useful—a wooden cutting board, a strainer, a large vat, and, best of all, a heavy, wicked looking cleaver. She laid an oversized fork next to the cleaver, wondering if this was what her treasured American Home Cookbook from 1854 meant by “a flesh fork.” She was somewhat disappointed that in her exploration she found nothing that resembled a “soup digester,” a covered pot that bulged out in the middle, and was guaranteed to turn any cooking scraps into a beneficial soup. Millie had always wanted her own soup digester.

Then she unpacked the supplies she’d brought: the loin, swathed in wax paper, a big box of salt and a bag of sugar, a large glass jar and several rocks of varying sizes. 

Oh! She straightened, struck by a sudden idea. Maybe this kitchen once stocked salt-petre! She dove into the depths of the pantry, searching the shelves, but only found more salt, sugar, flour, enough cans of beans to feed an army, and some ancient spices.

Disappointed, Millie re-emerged and sat at the table to review her recipes. She’d turn as much of the loin as could fit into the jar into salt pork (it was a pity about the salt-petre–she’d have liked to be faithful to her 19th century recipe). The preserved pork would supposedly last for two years; the rest of the meat she would boil, since she didn’t have the equipment for spit-roasting that was Flora’s preferred method for cooking pork. “But for stretching a pig,” Flora had written, “nothing beats boiling the pork and making pork potatoe hash.”

She’d better start some water boiling, Millie realized, glancing at her watch and getting up. It was already past 1 a.m. Humming softly, she filled the vat halfway up with water, set it on the stove, and put the burner on high. “The home cook can never have too much hot water.” That’s what the cookbook said. Then she lay the pork loin on the cutting board. Frowning, she measured her jar against it, calculating how much pork the jar would hold, and nicked the spot with the knife. Then she lifted the cleaver high above her head, narrowed her eyes, and swung.

Thunk. The cleaver sliced through the meat and bit into bone. Millie tried to lift it up for a second swing, but it was firmly wedged. She braced the loin with one hand and wiggled and pulled until the cleaver came free.

“What are you doing?” 

Millie swung around, cleaver in hand. 

A tall, lanky blonde leaned against the kitchen doorway. It was the mannish woman she’d seen with Dolly and Angelo that afternoon. She wore a faded pair of wash pants and a wrinkled plaid shirt. Her cheekbones were sharp enough to cut butter.

At Millie’s menacing posture, she straightened and held up her hands in surrender. “Careful with that knife.”

“Who are you?” Millie demanded, lowering the cleaver.

“Lon,” said the blonde, and left it at that.

There was a pause. Millie let it lengthen, but Lon didn’t break it. Finally, “I’m Millie,” she said. “And I’m cooking.”

After all, this Lon person didn’t have any authority to tell her she shouldn’t be cooking in the common kitchen in the wee hours of the morning–did he, or rather she? It was hard to think of Lon as a girl, but she wasn’t exactly a boy either. 

Millie decided to take the offensive. “What are you doing here?”

“I saw lights and heard noises and I wondered,” said Lon. “No one uses this kitchen.”

Damn her for flicking all the switches! She should have brought a flashflight. “Oh. Well. I am.”

Lon stepped away from the doorway and slid past Millie, bending to look at the recipe Millie had copied. “Salt pork,” the intruder read aloud. A strange expression flickered across her face, like the distant lightning of a storm. “Why would you want to make salt pork?” Her voice was suddenly sharp, as she glanced at the loin on the cutting board.

“Why not?” Millie asked truculently.

“There are tastier ways to prepare pork loin than salt pork.”

“Have you ever had it?” Millie hated when people dismissed her experimentation with period recipes out of hand.

“Oh, yes.” There was that strange expression again, some strong feeling sternly repressed, yet struggling to emerge.

“When? Where?” 

“Ten years ago,” Lon’s blue eyes looked into the distance. “In prison.”

Millie’s eyes fell to the pork loin. She wanted to question Lon further about her memories of the prison-cooked salt pork, but it seemed indiscreet. After another pause, in a slightly friendlier tone, she said, “It’s kind of an experiment; and anyway, I wanted to preserve some of the pork for later. This whole loin—“ she gestured futilely at the meat. “I can’t eat it all.”

“Buy a smaller cut?” suggested Lon.

“I didn’t buy this, it was given to me. At the food pantry.” So you were in prison and I’m on charity, now we’re even, Millie thought.

“Ah,” was all Lon said. Then, “Here,” she held out a hand.

After a baffled moment, Millie handed her the cleaver. She backed away automatically as Lon swung the cleaver up and then down, landing with a resounding thwack. The pork loin sprang apart into two chunks. Lon laid the cleaver between them.

As she turned to go, Millie couldn’t help calling after her, “Why didn’t you like it? The salt pork?”

“Too salty,” said Lon. 

Then she was gone.

Next: Illness at the Arms

All the Arms is in an uproar as news spreads that Nurse Beverly has succumbed to the dread disease. While Beverly lies feverish in her room, fitfully sleeping, the rest of the Arms residents try to figure out how to care for their neighbor.

Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XVIII

Previously: Angelo ventured out to a clandestine cocktail party and returned tipsy and tense. When his  hangover and headache turned into a full -blown attack of hypochondria, he ventured out in search of aspirin, only to find the nurse on the fifth floor has caught the dreaded flu.

Missed the earlier episodes? You can find them all hereOr start from the beginning with Episode I and use the “next” button at the top the screen to move between episodes.

Quarantined

In silence, Dolly and Angelo contemplated the sign on Apartment 503’s door.

QUARANTINE!
Do Not Enter
Covid-19 Patient

“She even drew a skull and crossbones, like on a bleach bottle,” Angelo murmured softly.

It was the middle of the night. Despite Beverly’s ordering him back to bed, Angelo had followed the newly-afflicted nurse to her apartment on the fifth floor and then stood outside the door, listening to the faint rasps of coughing within, wondering what to do next. Beverly had refused everything—food, water, medicine—reminding her neighbor with exhausted asperity that she was a nurse. “It just has to run its course,” she’d said, before closing the door with finality.

Angelo hadn’t been reassured. Beverly had lived in the Arms for ten years, as long as he had. In fact, he, Jackie and Beverly had all arrived at the Magdalena Arms the same year; the older residents still referred to them sometimes as “the kids.” They’d seen other tenants come and go, and they remembered when the garden out back was a scraggly patch of weeds, when breakfast was included with your rent, when there was only one phone for the whole building. It didn’t matter that Angelo had few interests in common with the tall, serious nurse—she was family. 

So he’d woken Dolly, to tell her that the steadiest, the most practical of “the kids” had been laid low. Beverly, the health nut who lectured them on their drinking and never stopped pushing her bran muffins on everyone, who reassured you about alarming rashes in uncomfortable places without making a big deal of it, who always added vitamins when you came to her for aspirin.

And since the pandemic began spreading, they’d leaned on her even more. She was the Magdalena Arms’s source of scientific information, explaining the difference between a virus and a bacteria, not that Angelo could exactly recite the details back. She’d stopped early excesses of prevention, like when Terry was telling everyone to wash lettuce leaves in soap, or when Dolly wondered if she should be bleaching the books in the Lounge. Beverly had  pooh-poohed the quinine and other miracle cures, the way she’d once rolled her eyes at the fad diets Sylvia was always trying. 

Angelo glanced at Dolly and saw by her knit brows and the muscles working in her cheeks that similar thoughts were passing through the landlady’s head. Dolly always boasted to newcomers, “We have our own hairdresser with a shop on the first floor—discounts for all the Magdalena Arms girls— And of course, our own nurse on the fifth floor, better than any hotel doc!”

Now the hairdresser couldn’t style and the nurse was sick.

“Do you think she’s asleep?” Dolly wishispered.

Angelo listened intently for a few seconds. “I don’t hear her coughing.”

At the end of the corridor, Kay waved at them from the doorway of 502. “I made coffee,” she said low.

The demoralized pair shuffled back to Kay and Dolly’s apartment. On the threshhold, Angelo hesitated. “I shouldn’t come in—”

“I’ve opened all the windows,” said Kaye. “We’ll leave the door open and our masks on. This is kind of an emergency, isn’t it?”

Dolly collapsed on the couch, and Angelo perched uneasily across the room. He shook his head at the coffee, and asked for a glass of water. “And aspirin, maybe?” His head was pounding again. 

“We’ll have to organize her care,” said Dolly, after the first restorative sip. “Round the clock! Constant attention! I’ll phone the hospital and find out what the ideal invalid diet is. What’s the old saying, ‘feed a cold and hunger a colic?’ Or—well, a coddled egg for breakfast maybe, and some of that ginseng tea she likes. You can’t go wrong with a coddled egg. I’ll make up a tray.” 

“I’ll take it in to her,” Angelo said. “I live alone and if I get sick it’s just me. If you get sick it’s Kay too.”

Dolly looked startled. “That’s right,” she said after a moment. “I forgot about the contagion…But then how…maybe…” She knit her brows again. “How are we going to manage nursing and staying safe? The cooking part is easy.”

“You should make her some bran muffins, for breakfast,” Angelo told Dolly. “You know how Beverly is about bran.”

“You’re cooking too?” said a new voice.

They all turned. It was Lon, leaning against the open apartment doorway.

“Lon!” said Dolly. “What are you doing up?”

Lon shrugged. “I’m a light sleeper.” They looked around the circle, at Angelo perched on the plaid-covered club chair, which had been pushed next to an open window, Kay and Dolly huddled on the matching couch, the percolator on the low coffee table. “Why the coffee klatsch?”

The seated three exchanged glances: we can’t keep this a secret, and then Dolly broke the news. “Beverly’s sick, and she told Angelo it was Covid-19.” 

Lon gave a low whistle. “She would know.” 

Kay spoke up. “Maybe she’ll be one of the light cases, you know, nothing worse than a bad flu. She’s young, and lord knows she’s healthy.”

“She’ll still need nursing,” Dolly began.

“I can do that,” Lon volunteered.

“You!” Angelo exclaimed. He noticed a stray lock he’d missed over the Lon’s left ear, and his fingers itched to cut it even as he protested, “But what about Maxie? You can’t risk infecting her!” And if Maxie gets it, that’s it for all the Arms, he thought privately. We’d be one big sick ward!

“I have nursing experience,” said Lon, with lowkey stubbornness. “I was assistant medical officer aboard the Bossa Nova. Maxie can get along without me for a little while. I’ve been sleeping on the roof these last few nights anyway.” Lon added the last almost as an afterthought.

Angelo began “But—” thinking but what about your mysterious afternoon excursions? Kaye made a calming gesture, like a conductor calling for piu piano, and Dolly was saying, “The problem, as I see it, is the darned PPE suits,” when Lon held up their hand and looked over their shoulder. 

They all heard the hoarse whisper, “What on earth is going on?”

Lon turned back. “It’s Jackie.”

Next: Who will nurse Beverly? Are her friends motivated by pure selflessness, or simply a desire to escape pandemic ennui? How will the feverish nurse react to these bohemian Florence Nightingale’s? And are any tenants in the Arms actually asleep?

Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XIX

Previously: Tension mounted between unemployed actress Jackie and her business-minded girlfriend over Ramona’s private plans to expand her cannabis business; Millie took her pork loin to the unused basement kitchen for some clandestine cooking, only to encounter the enigmatic Lon; the hungover haircutter, Angelo, went searching for aspirin and discovered nurse Beverly, suddenly sick with the dread flu; this sparked an impromptu emergency meeting with landlady Dolly and clarinetist Kay that grew to include first Lon and then Jackie. What was Jackie doing up anyway? Let’s find out!

Missed the earlier episodes? You can find them all hereOr start from the beginning with Episode I and use the “next” button at the top the screen to move between episodes.

Jackie

Jackie woke up when Ramona slid out of bed, but she lay still and made her breathing slow and regular. She was curled on her side with her back to Ramona, and she listened to the soft sounds Ramona made, seeing, in her mind’s eye, her girlfriend feeling for her slippers and shrugging on her maroon and red striped bathrobe. Maybe she was glancing over her shoulder now, as the bedroom door creaked open, to see if Jackie was still asleep.

It was child’s play for the thwarted thespian to act a scene of innocent slumber. You’d think Ramona would realize that by now.

When the bedroom door latched shut, Jackie turned and stared at the ceiling. Misery fell on her like a heavy weight tumbling from some celestial luggage rack, the familiar accompaniment to consciousness. Only sleep kept this black mood at bay. 

What had she been dreaming about? Jackie blinked and tried to remember. She was at the theater, but she wasn’t allowed onstage; her job was to wait in the wings and cue the actors. Her dream thought, just before waking, was, but at least I’m working in the theater

If only that were the case!

Jackie knew she had no right to be so bitter about Ramona’s rosy business prospects. On the other hand, couldn’t her girlfriend just admit how purely wrong it was for a mere commercial enterprise like Green Dreams to flourish while the arts lay wounded and dying in the middle of the road, an almost expired carcass, ignored by oblivious passersby in their hurry to stand in line at grocery stores and other so-called essential businesses? Couldn’t Ramona just say something along those lines?

Instead she kept giving Jackie those “chin up” pep talks; and tonight made that outrageous suggestion that Jackie could “pivot” to publicity, and work at Green Dreams, “part-time to start,” Ramona had said, with indecorous enthusiasm. “But once we expand, it could be full-time!”

Pivot! It was one of those horrible words the would-be cannabis queen had learned from the online business tutorials she listened to nonstop.

She had no understanding of Jackie’s state of mind. Absolutely none.

I’m in mourning for my life, Jackie thought. It was a line from her cancelled play, tragically apt.

She cocked an ear, listening for the faint scratching of pencil on paper as Ramona projected labor costs, rent, inventory; or the click of the keyboard as she added the information to her spreadsheets. 

Money—that’s all Ramona thinks about. How to get her hands on some capital. Profit and loss. The embittered girl’s lip curled. The world was rushing to its doom,  and Ramona saw a business opportunity.

At this point, Jackie had worked herself up into an indignant lather, making it impossible to lie still any longer. Jumping out of bed, she flung open the door to the living room.

It was empty. Jackie’s bellicose, “Ramona!” died on her lips. She poked her head into the narrow kitchenette, the tiny bathroom, both empty. “Ramona?” she queried uncertainly.

The laptop was gone too, Jackie noticed, and the copy of Small Business Accounting Basics, which was Ramona’s bible.

So. Jackie glared at the empty desk, hands on her hips. Her girlfriend had taken her business planning underground, in a pathetic attempt to conceal it from Jackie! The agitated actress was instantly awash in contradictory emotional currents, like a storm-plagued beach, beaten by crashing waves of rage while a powerful undertow of melancholy sucked her seaward. She stood stock still in the empty apartment, struggling to stay calm. 

Melancholy won, sending Jackie to slump on the couch, wondering forlornly what had happened to the affection that had bound her and Ramona all these years. How much she’d once admired Ramona, how rapt she’d been, listening to her older girlfriend’s tales of shady adventures in far-flung locales.

Like Desdemona and Othello, Jackie realized dolefully. What an ominous model! 

Was her relationship going to be another corpse littering the pandemic landscape?

She reached a foot out and poked at one of the boxes of Mrs. DeWitt’s detritus they’d been assigned to look through. Her questing toes knocked the lid ajar, revealing yellowed papers. Pamela and Lois had put Jackie on theater detail; this box contained the Bay City Shakespeare Society papers, and the one next to it was full of old playbills. Jackie hadn’t had the heart to start looking through either.

A breeze came through the open window, bringing the scent of night-blooming forsythia. 

And bringing the sound of voices as well. An animated conversation was occurring, some floors above, by the sound of it. 

Turning to kneel on the couch, Jackie opened the window wider and leaned on the sill, listening. “Coddled eggs!” she heard Dolly exclaim.

Eggs? What was Dolly doing discussing eggs at two a.m.? Was she going to re-institute communal breakfasts? No, that would be madness in the midst of a pandemic! Beverly, the Magdalena Arms’ unofficial medical advisor, would never allow it.

She strained her ears, but the other voices were mere murmurs, next to Dolly’s powerful projection. Still, she detected a familiar high tenor. Was that Angelo up there? It had to be, he was the only man in the place! And that low murmur—was that Ramona? 

Were they having some sort of midnight planning session without inviting Jackie? The girl on the couch seethed at the idea.

“…needs nursing!” said Dolly.

Who needed nursing?

Maybe Ramona hadn’t left the apartment simply for a clandestine session of business calculation. Maybe she was delirious, wandering the Arms like a mad Lady MacBeth! 

The thought had only to form and Jackie was in motion, springing off the couch, out the door, and up the stairs, without bothering to lock the apartment behind her.

Next: Where is Ramona, anyway? And when will everyone finally go to bed?

Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XX

Previously: Angelo roused Landlady Dolly and her girlfriend Kay with news of Nurse Beverly’s illness. Joined by Lon, they argued about who was best fitted to nurse the nurse. Jackie fretted over her quarrel with Ramona and other pandemic problems, while Millie continued her attempts to wrestle her oversized pork loin into submission in the basement kitchen.

Missed the earlier episodes? You can find them all hereOr start from the beginning with Episode I and use the “next” button at the top the screen to move between episodes.

Back to Bed

Lon stepped aside and they saw Jackie, her face anxious, teetering a scant six feet away.

“What’s going on?” Jackie demanded. “Why are you all up? Where’s Ramona?” She craned her neck up, down, sideways, as if she suspected Ramona was hiding in Apartment 502.

Before Jackie had finished Dolly was on her feet making shooing motions. “That’s it! It’s getting too crowded here—everyone, back to bed!”

“But—” 

“I have no idea where Ramona is, I’m just glad it’s not here on the fifth floor!”

As Dolly advanced to the apartment doorway, Angelo jumped up from the plaid club chair and scurried out of the apartment. Lon and Jackie retreated down the hall, then Jackie stopped, like an orrnery cow.

“What were you talking about? Why break up just when I get here? What’s the big secret?”

“We’ll discuss it tomorrow,” Dolly tried to glare sternly at Jackie. With Beverly laid low, it behooved the landlady to hold the fort when it came to social distancing standards! “It’s—it’s quiet hours!” she reminded her tenants. “You’ll wake up Phyllis!”

“Phyllis wears earplugs at night,” said Kaye behind her. Dolly hoped that the other three hadn’t heard.

“Scoot now!” She flapped her hands. 

But the three tenants stood arrayed along the hall like points on a socially distanced triangle. “I can’t ‘scoot’ with Jackie blocking the stairs,” Angelo was aggrieved.

“I’d like to go up the fire escape to the roof,” Lon gestured at the window behind Dolly. “I don’t want to wake up Maxie.”

“Just tell me what the hush-hush is all about and I’ll be on my way,” said Jackie stubbornly.

Dolly opened her mouth when a series of hacking coughs broke out from Apartment 503. Then Beverly’s ragged voice asked hoarsely, “Would you please all go to bed so a body can get some sleep?”

Jackie looked at 503 and gave a start when she saw the quarantine sign. Her jaw dropped. She turned to Angelo and whispered, “Beverly’s—?”

“Sick, yes!” hissed Angelo. “So move!”

******************

Ramona was in the lounge, looking at real estate; the Magdalena Arms’s wifi signal was stronger there. She’d told herself sternly that she’d just do a quick scan, purely for the purpose of calculating rental range; but she couldn’t stop herself from lingering over each storefront photo, imagining signage, calculating the foot traffic—so much more complicated now that locations devoted to leisure activities were closed. What use was it to be on the edge of the now deserted downtown, for example? 

What I want is a spot between a big grocery store and a pharmacy, she decided.

She’d just clicked on street view for a likely prospect when there was a muffled crash from the entry way, like breaking glass. Ramona lifted her chin, listening intently. A series of rustly, chinking, clinking sounds followed. She tucked the laptop under her arm and went to investigate.

In the dim glow of the chandelier, a girl was kneeling on the mosaic floor, using a piece of cardboard to clumsily sweep what looked like a smashed jar of pink pickles into a pile. 

It was her neighbor, Ramona realized. The new girl who’d moved into 203, right before the confinement started. Ramona barely knew what she looked like, she’d only gotten a fuzzy impression of youth and brown hair, behind a homemade mask. Her name was Missy or Mamie, or something like that.

The girl was maskless tonight, but Ramona still couldn’t make out her features as she bent her head over her the mess and made futile dabs at the odd pink pickles.

“Dropped your groceries?” Inquired Ramona.

The girl’s head shot up. She froze for a moment, and then recognized Ramona. “It was my salt pork,” she said. From the tone of her voice you might have thought she was talking about her dead mother.

“Too bad,” Ramona said perfunctorily. She wrinkled her nose under the polka-dotted mask. Who ate salt pork?

“I was trying to carry everything,” her neighbor murmured. Belatedly she pulled up the mask that dangled around her neck, but not before Ramona had inventoried her features: square jaw, snub nose, heavy brows arched over brown eyes.

Cute, Ramona summed up, her interest sharpening. “I can give you a hand up the stairs,” she offered, stepping forward to peer into the canvas bag on the floor. A knife, papers, tupperware containers, and resting on top—

“Why, that’s Mrs. DeWitt’s Meissen figurine!”

Ramona plucked it from the bag as Missy or Mamie stuttered, “That was—I saw it in one of those boxes—” she gestured at the clutter outside Mrs. DeWitt’s former apartment. “I was just keeping it safe—I mean, I didn’t want it to get put out with the trash.”

“Of course not.” Ramona winked. She liked this girl. Her neighbor had an eye for good quality and the initiative to—reorganize it, you might say.

“I was going to give it to the landlady in the morning!”

“Sure you were, Missy,” Ramona soothed.

“My name’s not Missy!”

“Sorry, I meant Mamie.”

“It’s Millie!”

“Well, a word to the wise, Millie. Everyone at the Arms knows about Mrs. DeWitt’s Meissen figurine. It was a gift from a Prussian officer back in her bad old days as a Berlin chanteuse.”

Millie took a deep breath, as if to blow more excuses at Ramona. But instead she stayed silent, letting the air out in a long hiss, like a slowly deflating balloon.

“More’s the pity,” said Ramona, examining the figurine. She’d calculated the figurine’s value more than once, and it was enough to set up her new dispensary in style. With an unconscious sigh, she told the younger girl, “I’ll make sure it gets back to Dolly. She’s executrix.”

“Thank you so much.”

Ramona arched an eyebrow at the sarcasm, and Millie added, “I’ll be sure to let Dolly know you have it—just in case you forget.”

This made Ramona smile broadly under her mask. “I like your style,” she told the new girl. “There’s a broom and dustpan in the lounge closet. Let me get it, and I’ll help sweep up your pickled pork.”

Next: Shock spreads through the Arms and beyond with the news of Beverly’s illness, causing unexpected repercussions!

Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XXI

Previously: When Mrs. DeWitt’s will revealed a missing daughter, Pam found a project to pull her out of her pandemic doldrums. But just as the unemployed career girl swings into action to organize the hunt for the missing girl, an unexpected obstacle derails the former doyenne of dress!

Missed the earlier episodes? You can find them all hereOr start from the beginning with Episode I and use the “next” button at the top the screen to move between episodes.

Making Plans

“You know Lois,” Pam said as she buttered her toast, “No one’s living in Mrs. DeWitt’s apartment now. I was thinking that it might make sense to turn it into a kind of command central.” She made a note on the pad next to her plate. “I’ll ask Dolly about it.”

“Yes,” said Lois, helping herself to the marmalade. “That makes more sense than transporting files over here.”

She would have applauded Pam’s idea, no matter how picayune, so pleased was she to see her partner once more full of pep. “More coffee?” she held the pot poised over Pamela’s cup.

“Please.” Pam scribbled another note on her pad. She was dressed in a crisp polka-dotted blouse this morning, with a matching lime green cardigan tossed over her shoulders. She’d even pressed her pants. The couple had spent the previous evening pleasurably organizing supplies for today’s tasks. Lois had applied alphabetical labels to accordion files and assembled bankers boxes, then filled them with pre-labeled hanging folders, color-coded to match the spreadsheet she’d created.

She ticked off items on her own list: Blank labels, markers, staple remover, manila folders.

It was intoxicating, the old filing frenzy, flowing from brain to fingertips.

“I wonder how long this will all take,” Lois speculated. “Weeks? Months?”

“Oh, I don’t think it will be near that long,” Pamela disagreed, with robust confidence. “Mrs. DeWitt left so many papers and with so many of us combing the files, and you and I tabulating results, we’re bound to make rapid progress. It’s only a matter of time before someone stumbles across a vital clue. Why, if Phyllis and Laura find adoption papers at the city records office tomorrow, we’ll be done before we’ve started!”

Pamela paused, and frowned as if realizing what that would mean.

“That seems unlikely,” Lois reassured her. “If Mrs. DeWitt gave no one a hint the whole time she was the Magdalena Arms house mother, it stands to reason any details on this secret daughter are buried pretty deep. I still can’t believe she wouldn’t have said something to the older tenants like you and Dolly, who knew her before—” Lois coughed delicately, “That is, when she was in better health.”

Before her unfortunate attachment to gin, Lois had been about to say, before she remembered not to speak ill of the dead.

“She was pretty far gone when I moved in, in fall of ’55,” said Pam bluntly. “You know—kind of in a haze, reciting poetry when you came to her with a plumbing problem. Mrs. Payne-Putney had just died, and I guess she was still pretty grief-stricken.”

“The school friend,” said Lois. She made a note on her steno pad: Schooling—school friends—names

“I remember one verse she was always repeating,” Pamela reminisced. “About how earthly joys have fled and all the flowers of youth lie withering and dead. Something like that. I did wonder,” she paused, “well, if she and Mrs. Payne-Potter might have been—an item,” Pamela chose her word carefully, “at boarding school.”

Lois tried to picture Mrs. DeWitt as a young boarder in love with the future Mrs. Payne-Potter, and failed. She kept imagining a girl with Mrs. DeWitt’s disheveled gray pompadour. Still–her landlady had been young once, and with her penchant for poetry….after all, everyone knew that boarding schools were hotbeds of same-sex lust!

The phone rang, interrupting their silent ruminations on Mrs. DeWitt’s possible past passions, and Lois jumped up to get it. Pamela rose, too, taking the breakfast dishes to the sink to scrape. 

“We should get going soon,” she called after Lois. “If that’s your Mrs. Pierson, don’t let her keep yakking about the end of the world for too long.”

Pam hummed a little tune as she rinsed and stacked the dishes. She was drying her hands on a dishtowel when she heard Lois exclaim, “Oh no!”

Pam poked her head into the hallway. Lois was clutching the phone to her ear. “Poor Beverly!” moaned Lois. “Is she…” she listened. “Well, is there anything we can do?” Another pause. “No, of course not. No, you must follow protocol…I agree, that would be best…I only wish there was something we could do to—well, keep us posted.”

Lois hung up the phone and turned reluctantly to Pamela, dreading the effect of her news. “That was Dolly,” she said. “It seems…well…”

“Something happened to Beverly?” Pam prompted. 

“Beverly’s come down with Covid,” Lois told her girlfriend. Ignoring Pamela’s startled, “What?” Lois rushed on, “and under the circumstances…well, Dolly thinks, and of course she’s right…” Lois couldn’t delay any longer—the bad news had to be broken: “We’ll have to postpone our daughter-detecting project!” she blurted, and then watched as Pamela sagged, like a rag doll with it’s stuffing suddenly sucked out.

Next: Dolly holds a meeting and Laura makes a phone call.

Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XXII

Previously: Angelo demanded a rent reduction from Dolly; Beverly returned from her shift at the hospital coughing that she’d caught Covid; as the news spread, Lois and Pamela reeled, while at the Magdalena Arms, tenants bickered about who would nurse Beverly. Meanwhile, Millie’s midnight cooking spree came to naught when she dropped her precious jar of salt pork, and encountered Ramona, who suspected the new tenant of taking Mrs. DeWitt’s Meissen figurine for her own financial benefit.

Nursing the Nurse

After leaving a breakfast tray outside Beverly’s door, Dolly headed downstairs to join the group in the garden. They’d agreed to meet and hash out the question of Beverly’s care that morning, although everyone was heavy-eyed from lack of sleep.

Dolly hadn’t mentioned the meeting to Beverly. She knew instinctively that the nurse would hate having her health discussed. Beverly had already refused the coddled egg Dolly had urged on her.

“I don’t need protein,” she’d said impatiently. “Just boil up some thin gruel and I’ll sprinkle some flax meal on it. And could you fetch me a thermos of hot water? Maybe slice some ginger into the water.” Beverly’s voice was hoarse and muffled as she issued these instructions from behind the closed door to 503. She coughed before adding, “Maybe boil the ginger a little. It will soothe my throat.”

Dolly had had to go all the way down to the basement kitchen to find the big old Stanley thermos that held a half gallon. If Beverly wanted hot water, she would least make sure the stricken nurse had enough to sink a battleship!

The preoccupied landlady had paused on the threshold to the quiet kitchen, a sixth sense pulling her away from her problems and back to the present. Something seemed different about her domain. She sniffed the air. 

There was a distinct…porky smell in the kitchen, mixed with a boiled cabbage kind of dampness. Dolly glanced about suspiciously. The table and countertop were gleaming—too gleaming. Someone had definitely used the kitchen recently, for a private cooking party.

Dolly knit her brows and chewed her lip. Was this another infraction of pandemic protocol? Would she be expected to hunt down the culprit and chastise her? She ticked off the most malcontent of her tenants: Jackie of course, but she and Ramona leaned heavily on packaged food. Lon, in their quest for solitude might be the culprit…or perhaps Sylvia’s daughter Patty, attempting to escape from the smothering parenting of Terry?

Dolly shook her head and dismissed the mystery from her mind as she filled the kettle and got out the thermos. It could wait. 

But when Dolly pushed open the door to the garden, she looked around the assembled anxious faces, wondering if one of them had been cooking a late night batch of pulled pork and why. “Beverly’s got water enought to last the day,” she reported. “She says she’s not hungry, but I’m going to make up some chicken broth, or maybe beef tea all the same.”

“Make it chicken broth,” Ramona advised. “I believe Beverly’s stopped eating beef.” 

“She certainly has!” Jackie broke in.

Jackie and Ramona occupied opposite ends of the long bench, like strangers avoiding contamination. Angelo was under the grape arbor, on a straight-backed chair he’d carried out from the lounge. Lon perched on the fire escape ladder, long legs twined in the rungs. The ladder swung ever so slightly back and forth. 

Dolly took the hammock chair, turning her head from side to side to address everybody. “The point is,” she said patiently, before the participants got hung up on the best flavor for the broth and began advising her on spicing, “The point is that we can take care of Beverly and keep safe with—well, let’s call it distanced nursing. I’ll just keep making meals on trays and…” 

She trailed off as the rest of the group shook their heads. “We have to plan for the worst-case scenario,” Ramona declared, with a certain relish. “What if Beverly becomes delirious? Can’t feed herself?”

“Or needs to go to the hospital!” Jackie burst out. “Someone has to monitor her!”

“Take her temperature,” Angelo seconded his old friend.

“Administer alcohol rubs, keep a chart, assess lung function.” Lon was clearly pushing their medical expertise.

Dolly capitulated. “Fine, we monitor. But that means,” she looked around the group sternly, swiveling her head like an owl, “whoever monitors will have to isolate too, so…”

It was time to address the elephant in the room, the coupled volunteers who were apparently hell-bent on escaping their other halves. Contemplating Jackie in her sulk and Ramona who was egging her on for some reason, Dolly felt a wave of grateful affection for steady, serene Kay, upstairs cleaning her clarinet. As for Lon…Dolly turned her head to study the taciturn in-betweener, who was harder to read than ever beneath their mask. She’d never been quite sure how Maxie and Lon’s liaison worked anyway.

“I’m on the roof already,” Lon called dibs on the nursing job before Dolly could finish her thought.

“But Lon, it’s only April. The weather could still turn cold!”

They all looked up. It was Maxie who’d spoken, hanging over the fourth floor balcony railing.

“It’s not that I mind sleeping alone for a few weeks,” she added, her cheerful voice carrying to every apartment in the building. “But you know you’re prone to chilblains, Lon!”

“And besides,” Angelo began, but Lon interrupted, “Then I can sleep in Angelo’s salon. I’ll sublet it.”

Angelo, who had been about to bring up Lon’s mysterious afternoon outings, closed his mouth. Dolly cocked her head. They looked at each other, evidently sharing the same thought: The idea had possibilities.

“That might work,” Angelo conceded.

“Fine!” Dolly said heartily. “That’s settled then—”

“Wait!” cried Jackie. The thwarted thespian saw her escape from Ramona and their romantic turmoil receding from her reach. “Beverly knows me! We’re friends! Besides, Lon’s not the only one with medical expertise! I did extensive research on onion plasters when I played in that adaptation of Where the Lilies Bloom!”

“She knows ’em backwards and forwards!” Ramona declared.

What is Ramona’s game? Dolly wondered. Does she want to get rid of Jackie?

“Onion plasters have been debunked,” Lon said gently.

“I could just as easily sublet Angelo’s salon,” Jackie persisted. In desperation she turned to her older girlfriend. “Can’t I—I mean, we?”

“Well—that’s a possibility. Sure.” Ramona’s lack of enthusiasm was evident. Angelo couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for the unemployed actress, who was clearly grasping at straws. Everyone knew Ramona was saving every penny she could get to open her own cannabis dispensary.

“Gosh, Jackie,” Dolly hated to disappoint her one-time protegé. “It does seem like Lon’s got the plan and the medical experience. I’m sure you can find some way to contribute. Maybe reading aloud over skype, or—”

But the incensed ingenue had leapt from the bench and slammed back into the Arms.

“Oh dear,” Dolly fretted. “I hoped we could avoid hard feelings.” She turned to Ramona. “Don’t you think you better go after her?”

“These days, it’s best to let Jackie cool down on her own,” Ramona said drily, standing up. She looked around and saw that Angelo was already conferring with Lon. “Say,” the entrepreneurial girl lowered her voice, “What can you tell me about that cute number on the second floor, that Missy—no, Margie—no, that’s not it,” She snapped her fingers. “Millie!”

“Oh Ramona,” Dolly said reproachfully. “This is no time to go sniffing after someone new!”

Jackie stormed into the Arms’s entranceway, her eyes too full of angry tears to notice Laura, sitting on the bottom step of the curving staircase, almost as if she were waiting for someone. 

Laura jumped to her feet and blocked the angry actress’s headlong path to the front door. “Wait! What did you decide? Who’s going to nurse Beverly?” the normally serene Bay City bureaucrat seemed unusually anxious.

“Lon is!” spat Jackie. “That—that—kept quack!”

And with that she pushed open the front door and darted out.

Laura stood a moment, undecided. She hated to interfere in anyone’s life, and she wasn’t sure Beverly would thank her, but—

Beverly was a sister, and she’d introduced Laura to the Arms. And while Laura had nothing against Lon, she thought stiff-necked, proud Beverly might prefer someone…closer. 

The housing expert nodded, once, decisively, and spun around to the stairs. She had a phone call to make.

Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XXIII

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.

Public Records

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—”

“Don’t!”

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 Audley 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:

Births —>

<—Deaths

“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.

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?

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?

Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XXVI

Previously: Dolly peddled pecan buns to the Arms’ inhabitants but found no takers. Laura’s mysterious telephone call finally bore fruit, when another nurse shows up at the Arms demanding to be taken to Beverly’s sick bed, while a distraught Lois brings Pam to the Arms for aid.

Audley

Beverly was drowsing fitfully, balanced on the border between sleep and wakefulness, an unpleasant no-man’s land filled with reptitious dreams that were more like reprises of the dreariest bits of daily life: Buses that didn’t come, doors stuck shut, the supply closet out of PPE.

Then the door opened and a nurse robed in white protctive gear surged into the room. For an instant Beverly felt a jolt of irritation. How did this nurse rate PPE when Beverly had none? Then the feverish woman woke up fully, and realized with horrified dismay that her carefully guarded sickroom had been breached!

“Get out!” she croaked, pushing herself into a sitting position.

“Lie down,” countered the nurse. “I’m going to take your temperature.” She’d already pulled out a thermometer from the black leather bag she’d set on a table covered with a layer of newspaper. She shook down the mercury with a few forceful flicks of her wrist and stuck it in Beverly’s mouth. 

“Audley?” Beverly tried to talk around the thermometer. “What are you—”

“Hush,” said the nurse. Beverly noticed that she wore blue beneath the transparent white of the protective gear, the uniform of the visiting nurses. It must be Audley, disguised as she was by mask, goggles, and hood. And now she was out of view, clattering in the tiny kitchen, putting the kettle on by the sound of it. She reappeared, but only to whisk away the remains of Beverly’s last meal, a bowl of swiss muesli she hadn’t been able to finish. Then she was back again, and with a vigorous tug or two straightened the coverlet and sheets, then plucked the thermometer from Beverly’s mouth. “Hmmm.” She picked up the fever chart, and told Beverly, “Still 104. Maybe we can bring that down a bit.”

Beverly lay back on her pillow and coughed, grabbing a tissue to cover her mouth. “I wasn’t going to see you anymore,” she said weakly.

“I know, Bev,” said her ex. “But you don’t have a choice.”

**********

“It’s not that I doubted your medical expertise Lon,” Laura said earnestly. “But I know how stubborn Beverly is, and she needed someone—” the civil servant hunted for a tactful way to phrase what the new nurse had that Lon didn’t and settled on, “someone who’s a nurse like her. And of course Audley projects a certain, well, authority, if you know what I mean.”

Dolly grumbled, “She’s pretty pushy, that’s for sure!”

She, Lon, and Laura were standing in the entrance hallway, conferring. The visiting nurse had insisted that Dolly use her master key to let her into Beverly’s studio after she’d explained who she was and that she’d been called by Laura.

Now Lon said, “You did the right thing, phoning her. Anyway, it looks like we have another patient.” She gestured at Angel’s Hair, where Ramona had stowed Lois and Pamela while Dolly dealt with the demanding nurse in blue. 

As if on cue, the door opened and Ramona emerged. “Acute melancholia,” she pronounced. “That’s all that’s wrong with Pam! And she hasn’t been eating. Won’t eat, Lois says. I told Lois to try feeding her one of your pecan buns. So you broke down Beverly’s door? I like that new nurse. She’s a go-getter!”

“She’s more than that,” interjected a voice from above. They all looked up, except for Lon, who had silently slipped away to check on his new charges. It Maxie, leaning over the first floor balustrade. “I’ve seen this nurse Audley before, in Beverly’s company. Last fall I spotted them sitting  in a Dockside cafeteria. They were looking pretty cozy, I must say!”

“Yes,” Laura admitted. “Audley and Beverly were involved. They fell out late last year—over politics. You see, although Audley’s profession is visiting nurse, her passion is organizing. I met her when she came to the Housing Department with a delegation of docksiders demanding that something be done about the plumbing problems at the Truman Homes, the public housing project there. And then I introduced her to Beverly, at last year’s halloween party—”

“She was at the party?” Dolly furrowed her brow. “I don’t remember her seeing her.”

“She was dressed as the grim reaper,” Laura told her. “She had a skull mask and a big cloak and carried a scythe.”

“I remember her!” Maxie exclaimed. “And Beverly came as Louis Pasteur. Not a very promising pairing!”

“They were made for each other,” Laura contradicted her. “They both fell hard. Then came the nurses’ strike right before Christmas…”

“Beverly was part of that strike,” Ramona remembered. “What, this other nurse was a scab?” she scowled.

“Just the opposite!” cried Laura. “Audley was part of a cadre of hard-core, anti-establishment types who hoped to use the nurse’s strike as a springboard for a general strike! She was furious at Beverly for voting to settle after the hospital offered them a pay raise. She saw it as a personal betrayal, Beverly said. But I couldn’t believe…I mean, I thought with Beverly sick…”

“So you played Cupid, you sly thing!” said Dolly, with admiration. “You and Covid-19 of course.”

**********

Upstairs Audley spoonfed Beverly from a bowl of steaming broth. The stricken nurse has a clean napkin spread over her chest and tucked uner her chin, and a neatly folded cold, damp rag draped over her forehead. Audley had changed her pillowcase, and the sensation of fresh, uncreased linen under her head was heaven to the feverish woman. For the first time Beverly felt like she might recover from this virus. It made her realize how despairing she’d been, barricading the door against Lon and the rest of the world, her only ambition to prevent the disease from spreading to the rest of the Magdalena Arms’s inhabitants. At the thought, she gripped Audley’s arm. 

“You’ll have to quarantine here too,” she told her urgently. “No two ways about it.”

“Did you think I don’t know that?” Audley poured another spoonful into her. “I brought supplies.”

Beverly swallowed the soup, remembering the last time she’d seen Audley, and their lacerating quarrel. They’d gone round and round getting angrier and angrier until Audley called her a ‘reformist tool’ and Beverly had walked out.

“I’m still a reformist tool,” she said now.

“I know,” said Audley, in the low, sweet tone she saved for late nights in bed. “Drink your soup.”

A tear slid down Beverly’s cheek, and Audley swabbed it with the napkin.

“That’s just fever,” said Beverly. “I may be reformist, but I’m not sentimental.” And she slurped another spoonful of soup.

Next: Will this Covid crisis fueled reunion last? Or will politics pull the two nurses apart again? And can Pam’s problems be fixed by a pecan bun?

Sheltering in Place: Episode XXVII

Previously: Audley, Beverly’s fellow nurse and also her ex, arrived to care for the Covid stricken nurse; relieved of one patient, Lon finds their medical expertise required by another.

The New Patient

“What seems to be the problem?” 

Lois started at the low voice, and dropped the pecan bun she was trying to feed to Pamela.

Lon was standing on the other side of the maroon and silver salon chair, which was tilted as far back as it would go to accomodate Pamela’s lanky, listless form.

Hastily Lois turned her head to lift her mask and blow her nose, then folded the handkerchief to a fresh spot and dabbed at her eyes before turning back to Lon. “She won’t eat,” she gulped. “She won’t talk to me—or anyone. Not that there’s anyone to talk to. She lies in bed all day, just staring at the ceiling. She won’t even—” tears threatened to overflow as Lois choked out, “Bathe!”

Lon surveyed his new patient. Pamela did look unkempt. The once well-groomed Gruneman’s head buyer for womenswear was pallid, except for the dark circles under her gray-green eyes. Most startling, she was dressed like a dockside bum in crumpled and creased layers—an orange-and-blue plaid carcoat covered a polka-dotted pajama top, paired with a worn pair of green skipants.

Lon leaned over Pamela and snapped his fingers in front of Pamela’s blank stare. The redhead blinked.

“Reactive,” Lon commented in an encouraging tone, and then fell silent, contemplating his course of treatment.

In truth, the oceanologist was out of their depth. They were much more accustomed to flesh wounds, sprains, fractures and the occasional case of the bends.

“Wait here,” Lon told Lois.

They went back into the hall. Laura had vanished, but Dolly and Ramona were still there, discussing the new arrivals. 

“Pamela needs help,” Lon said. 

“Can’t you give her some pep pills and send those two packing?” Dolly looked like she was chewing her lip underneath her paisley mask. “I’m fond of them, but we’re full up! That Audley can share with Beverly—”

“She’ll have to, they’re co-contaminants as well as exes now,” Ramona added.

“But Pam and Lois are another kettle of fish!”

“What about the empty studio on the third floor?” Ramona suggested.

“The repairs aren’t finished, and there’s no running water,” Dolly objected.

“Well how about—”

Lon left the two friends to figure out housing and headed upstairs. Maxie had vanished from the lower landing, but as Lon crossed the third floor landing, Laura popped out of her apartment. “Anything new?” 

“You might be getting new neighbors,” said Lon.

“Neighbors! You mean Pam and Lois? Well…”

Lois diagnosed reluctance warring with the Housing Assistant’s natural inclination to provide shelter to those in need. At the end of the hallway Sylvia poked her head out of 302. “Where’s Dolly?”

“Downstairs,” Lon continued her climb, as Sylvia said, “I need to talk to her about the DeWitt deal…”

Lon let herself into the fourth floor loft. As she traversed the living area, she heard Maxie’s voice coming from the rear deck. Lon realized that Maxie had made it her current headquarters, switching from her usual spot on the couch. Perhaps even upbeat Maxie felt the need for open air these days.

The weather had turned cold and Maxie was wrapped in a blanket against the chill, phone to her ear, talking animatedly: “No, no parties, clandestine or otherwise. I might have something in the pandemic romance department in a few days…”

Lon asked, “Is that Mamie?”

Maxie covered the receiver and nodded, whispering, “What’s the situation with Pam and Lois?”

Lon shrugged. “Not sure.” 

Maxie had been on the phone an awful lot with Mamie the past week. Lon had no intention of contributing grist for the columnist’s gossip mill, even unintentionally. They thought of reminding Maxie that helping Mamie had proved problematic in the past, but Maxie was cavalier about the risks of her relationship with the gossip guru.

Lon went into their room and dragged the footlocker from underneath the bed, opened it, and pulled out the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Sitting cross-legged, she flipped through it, stopping here and there to read. dysthymia…endogenous depression…Feighner criteria…bleak views of the future…with catatonic characteristics…

Keeping their thumb as a placeholder they closed the book and considered. Involutional melancholia, reactive depressive psychosis, or depressive neurosis? Lon was pretty sure it wasn’t manic-depressive psychosis.

Holding the book, Lon left the apartment and climbed to the fifth floor. He tapped on 503, and got a muffled, impatient sounding “Yes?”

“Audley? I’d like to consult you about the case downstairs, the melancholia—”

“I’m not a doctor. Take her to—oh. I guess that’s not a good idea right now.”

“Exactly,” said Lon. “Any suggestions?”

Audley’s sigh was audible. “Try a warm bath and exercise, like they used to do.”

That was advice after Lon’s own heart. “Thanks, nurse.”

The response was some muttering of which Lon could only make out the words “if it’s not one thing…”

The front hall was empty, when he descended the last flight, but then Dolly popped out of Mrs. DeWitt’s apartment. “We’re putting them in Harriet’s old digs,” she said.

“Does it have a bathtub?” 

Dolly blinked. “As a matter of fact it does.” 

“Good,” said Lon.

It took both Lon and Dolly to hoist Pamela and drag her across the hallway into Mrs. DeWitt’s old suite, with Lois fluttering in the rear. Once they’d laid Pam on Mrs. DeWitt’s old bed, Lon told Lois to run a warm bath. Privately the amateur medic thought that Lois was experiencing sympathetic psychosis and being given a task would prove therapeutic. As Dolly turned to leave, Lon remembered, “Sylvia wants to see you. Something about the DeWitt case.”

Dolly nodded, looking harried, and exited. Lon couldn’t blame her. The missing daughter had taken backseat to the sudden influx of invalids.

But when she turned back to Pamela there was a faint sign of intelligence in the doyenne of dressing’s bleary eyes. 

“DeWitt?” croaked Pam.

Next: Will detecting prove a better anti-depressant than any pharmaceutical?

Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XXVIII

Previously: Anxious Lois turned to the Magdalena Arms for help as Pamela sunk deeper into a Covid-induced depression, while Laura explained she’d called Beverly’s ex-girlfriend to care for the stricken nurse, despite the political rift between them. Rifts remain between Jackie and Ramona, Phyllis and Laura, and important clues to Mrs. DeWitt’s daughter are in danger of getting lost in all the romantic distraction!

Faithful Readers: Another apology for a delayed episode! Your narrator was occupied from dawn until dark, dashing between disaster service work and the AMIA conference on media archiving. She suspects that many of her faithful readers read more slowly than she writes and may not have even noticed this schedule hiccup, but please pipe up with an “au contraire” if this is not the case!

Rifts and Secrets

By the following week Beverly’s fever was down and the stricken nurse was on the mend. Audley remained sequestered in Beverly’s studio and what went on between the ex-lovers aside from nursing was anybody’s guess. Dolly was loathe to ask Audley anything, even to query how contagious Beverly still was, and when the building would be free of the Covid taint. The big blond landlady shrugged her shoulders when questioned by her tenants, and supposed that the pair were following some health safety protocol known only to nurses. It seemed to Lon that Dolly was a little afraid of Audley.

Pamela, the other patient, proved to be a more stubborn case. A series of warm baths and some sets of sit-ups had somewhat restored the retail executive, at least physically. Her personal hygiene was improved, at any rate, and Lois coaxed her each morning into a semblance of normal attire. But Pam was a mere shell of her old self. The only activity that brought a spark of life to her eye was the search for Mrs. DeWitt’s daughter. She’d roused herself to look at the box of papers Sylvia had culled, but her energy flagged after twenty minutes spent perusing the crabbed handwriting from an earlier era, and she was soon sighing, “It’s hopeless,” as she lay back on Mrs. DeWitt’s bed for another lengthy nap. 

Lon sometimes wondered if Lois hindered her girlfriend’s recovery, for all her desire to help. The office manager’s obsession with hygiene weighed down every interaction Pam had with the outside world, whether it was Lon’s visits to check up on Pamela, or Dolly bringing a batch of muffins, or Sylvia lugging down another box of papers for Pamela to peruse. Everyone had to sanitize their hands under Lois’s anxious gaze; all inanimate objects were sequestered in a “decontamination zone” in a corner of the room. Lon couldn’t help comparing Lois’s behavior to the DSM’s criteria for compulsive disorder.

But was it any wonder, after these weeks of anxious confinement, that everyone was a little loony? Lon had rejoiced when the local restaurants at last began to reopen for takeout, and had immediately put in an order for cannelloni at Luigi’s. The familiar favorite gave off a faint flavor of normalcy along with the odor of garlic. They were carrying the bag of take-out up to the fourth floor to surprise Maxie when Millie accosted them on the second floor landing. 

“Could you please do me the favor,” said the standoffish newcomer stiffly, “Of not sharing my personal information with our landlady?”

“What are you talking about?” asked Lon, coming to a halt.

“You apparently told her I was starving and needed a handout, when I’m not and I don’t!”

“Oh?” Lon looked at Millie carefully, searching for signs of paranoia, and then remembered. “Oh. I did mention your visit to the food pantry. I’m sorry.”

“The last thing I need right now is some stranger interfer—”

“I’ll tell Dolly to layoff,” Lon interrupted.

“I’d appreciate that.” Millie unbent a bit. “I have plenty of food. It’s just a pity the pantry doesn’t include coffee with all those carrots—” She stopped as if she’d said too much. “But anyway, unemployment should kick in any day now. Don’t mention that to Dolly.”

“I won’t,” Lon told her. Although they thought they might mention it to Maxie. As a fellow caffeine fiend, Maxie would surely be moved to share her stash. Something about Millie brought out Lon’s protective side, and they hated to think of their young neighbor jonesing for a cup of joe.

“Your hair’s wet.”

The remark startled Lon. “Staying clean,” they said, passing a self-conscious hand over their damp head. Underneath their mask they’d put on an automatic smile, designed to charm and deflect.

For a moment Millie looked like she might say more—maybe remark that Lon was coming from the street, not the shower, and shouldn’t their short hair have dryed by now? But Millie only shrugged slightly and said, “Well, goodbye.”

Lon made a mental note: the new girl was observant. Even when distracted by her own woes.

A flight and a half up Lon crossed paths with Ramona. She greeted Lon cheerily and Lon caught a whiff of alcohol as she passed. The green entrepreneur had been having a drink with Maxie again, they supposed.

If Lois was ultra-vigilant in her sanitizing and protecting against contagion, the rest of the Arms’s dwellers had gotten more casual in their precautions, hobnobbing in the halls, masks askew, or in the case of Maxie holding intimate little happy hours on her back deck. It was as if Beverly’s recuperation from Covid had proven somehow that the pandemic could be survived, and so lessened their fears.

This new nonchalance made Lon a little uneasy. If the two nurses weren’t isolated and unaware in Beverly’s studio, they might have put a stop to such behavior. But why hadn’t Laura and Phyllis, the protocol-conscious bureaucrats, spoken up? They hadn’t hesitated to make a huge fuss about that haircut a few weeks ago!

As if conjured by Lon’s musings, Laura opened her door and peered out. “Oh—hello, Lon,” she said, trying to conceal her disappointment.

Maxie might have asked, “Who are you looking for Laura?” but Lon simply said, “Hi,” and continued to climb. She’d stayed out of the speculation as to what had blighted the growing bond between the bureaucrats this time.

Maxie was on the couch for once, scribbling busily on a legal pad. She greeted the cannoli with a squeal of delight. “Lon! How perfect! I thought we’d have to have the lentil stew or something healthy.” But she kept writing, and even brought her notes to the table, continuing to jot down words between bites, until finally Lon asked, “Big story?”

Maxie looked up. Instead of answering, she asked a question of her own: “Where is it you go, that you come back with wet hair?” 

Lon swallowed the last of their glass of water. “You don’t really want to know.”

“Ditto,” said Maxie.

Next: Ramona begins to wonder about Jackie’s continued absence, Maxie visits new girl Millie, and Lois leaves on an unexpected trip.