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 IV

Missed the earlier episodes? You can find them all here. They’re in reverse order until our overworked IT staff fixes this minor frustration, but if you can count, you can figure out which episode to read first, second, third, etc.

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 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 sitting the required six feet away on Phyllis’s bed. Her second cup of coffee was on the bedside table, her nimble thumbs were flying busily as she texted her friend Stella. “But what’s the news closer to home?”

Ooo! Send me a picture! Maxie texted. I’m still in my dressing gown and negligée, the dark pink one.

Down the hall in apartment 502 (a spacious one-bedroom Dolly had constructed out of rooms 505, 506, the communal bathroom, and the end of the corridor), Kay played “Sophisticated Lady” on her clarinet. She had the place to herself; her landlady-girlfriend was off somewhere in the building doing maintenance, or maybe making a trellis for grape vines in the backyard. Kay had been watching a YouTube video on embouchure when Dolly announced her plans over breakfast, and hadn’t paid close attention. She lipped her reed, trying to remember the YouTube teacher’s instructions, but the different tongue placement felt odd. 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. 

“What?” said Netta into her phone. “Sorry, Kay’s playing her clarinet down the hall, I couldn’t hear you.” She listened to Lois’s rapid flow for a few moments. “Lois, you have to be realistic. You can’t read every improving book your email newsletters recommend. And I don’t think watching all of Ingmar Bergman’s films is the best idea, especially not on top of the online philosophy class–” The voice at the other end got higher and more urgent. “Lois, stop! There’s no percentage in turning the pandemic into some marathon self-improvement binge!” She listened for a moment, then said, “Even if it’s a meditation class, it’s still a knee-jerk need to cling to some sort of warped work ethic.. And aren’t you still working from home anyway?”

Across Town…

“We don’t have much work, now that our retail clients are all closed,” fretted Lois. She 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. “I might as well use this—this situation for a productive purpose!”

Back in the Arms, Netta rolled her eyes. Lois didn’t like to even say the word pandemic. It was too depressing. But Netta’s old fondness for Lois blunted the left-wing teacher’s penchant for plain speaking. Instead she asked, “Speaking of retail, how’s Pamela?”

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. “She’s fine!” Lois hoped Netta wouldn’t notice that her cheeriness was a trifle forced. “Pamela’s been using this—this opportunity to catch up on her rest.”

The Fifth Floor again…

The clarinet launched into the second part of the song, the notes dancing back and forth as they climbed upward, before swinging back down. They sounded clear in Beverly’s room. If the hard-working nurse had been home, she might have hummed along under her breath, singing her favorite line: Smoking, drinking, never thinking of tomorrow…nonchalant… But the room was empty. At that moment, Beverly was in Bay City General hospital, carefully donning protective garb as she prepared to go on duty.

On the Fourth Floor…

Lon heard the clarinet on the fourth floor as she panted her way through a series of push-ups. 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 lavish renovation dwarfed all of the apartment conversions put together. She’d gutted the space down to the rafters and studs, then a horde of workers had remade it to her specifications, resulting in a sort of extravagant artist’s loft. Dolly had refused to let Maxie alter the Magdalena Arms’s granite facade with the cantilevered deck, she’d proposed, but Maxie had persuaded the dubious landlady to allow a more modest balcony in the rear of the building.

Now a wall of windows overlooking the tiny back garden ran along the rear wall, flooding the lavish loft with light. Sunlight sparkled on the rarely used chromium fixtures in the kitchen: the convection oven, the gas range capable of frying dozens of pancakes at once. There was a marble-topped island with a concealed cooling element for rolling out pastry, and a special carbonating machine for producing seltzer water. “I need them for recipe testing,” Maxie had claimed. The apartment featured a concealed sound system and an shelf unit of Brazilian mahogany that lit up to display the books it held–all publications put out by Fifth Floor Editions, the press Maxie had founded. 

Maxie loved luxury—the more unneccessary the better. Lon often thought that 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, of course. It was purest chance that she’d flown back to Bay City from Switzerland just as the shut down began. Lon had been so 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…

In her apartment on the third floor, 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, 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.

“Patty’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, “Patty 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 the apartment 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.”

Angelo’s studio was also empty. The unemployed coiffeur grew restless in his home and preferred to putter in his empty salon

The third studio’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)

Career Girls, 1942 Style

First edition of Laura, Eyre & Spottiswood, cover by Bip Pares

There was a double feature playing a few nights ago, Laura and Bedelia, both based on books by Vera Caspary. I was so exhausted from the grueling Noir City Film Festival pace (four movies on Saturday) that I thought I’d skip the movie version of Laura (which I’ve seen more times than I can remember) and read the book instead. Continue reading