Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode VII

Missed the earlier episodes? You can find them all here (in reverse order) 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 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 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)