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 (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.

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 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 (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.

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 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 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)