Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode III

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.

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 the Phyllis’s bed Maxie watched with interest. When Phyllis stood upright again, breathing harder 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 refrigerator 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 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 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 sax 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 sax 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 sax 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 projection 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 architect-designed shelf unit of Brazilian mahogany that lit up to display the books put out by Fifth Floor Editions, the publishing company, Maxie had started. 

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 sax. 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 Linda 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 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)

Things I didn’t post on FaceBook and Why

A brief list:

What to say? best say nothing.

  • Quote from Simone de Beauvoir’s Mémoires d’une Jeune Fille Rangée about her désespoir. On second thought, pretentious. Plus Facebook’s auto-translate would mangle the meaning.
  • Opinion of I, Tonya. On second thought, my private opinion. Why share?
  • Opinion of Darkest Hour. Ditto.
  • Opinion of Moontide. Ditto.
  • Comment on depressing story in news. I think a dozen people have already said the same thing. And if I try for originality I’ll end up making another Ayn Rand reference and leaving the wrong impression.
  • Comment on American political situation. What is there to say, really? Parallels to French under occupation kind of pretentious as well as obscure.
  • Comment on politics. Am I actually interested in politics? No. Best not to reveal this.
  • Photo of man fishing in music concourse fountain for change late at night. On second thought, this feels like an invasion of privacy. Plus, parallels to Dickens’s London kind of pretentious. Plus photo blurry.
  • Photo of self on rural walk. Way too private to post pictures of self, especially doing something private, like walking or going about my life.
  • Opinion of Yves Saint Laurent documentary. Excessive Francophilia starting to be embarrassing.
  • Photo of picturesque cityscape taken during my commute. Too busy racing cars and other cyclists to actually take photos.
  • Photo of comic sign on Clement Street. This has probably been done enough. Plus photo blurry and too dark.
  • Plans to go to Gay Games in Paris. See above, re privacy, Francophilia
  • Photo of dish at fancy restaurant. Seems like other people have this covered. Plus see above, privacy, parallels to Dickens.
  • Photo of cute child. Kids I know are now too old to be cute. Plus invasion of privacy on multiple levels.
  • Kitten Photo. Misleading, as I have no kittens.

Activist Pep

There’s a treasured shelf in my collection of mid-century teen fiction and career girl books. It holds those rare voumes in which the burgeoning civil rights movement of the sixties collides with the whitebread high school fantasies of the fifties to form a schizophrenic hybrid of the malt shoppe romance and the problem novel. It’s culture clash, Y-Teen style.

Titles include Julie’s Heritage (a black high school girl grapples with racism and dating), Why Did You Go to College Linda Warren? (good-girl Linda gets embroiled with anti-war activists during her first year of college), Lots of Love, Lucinda (Corry’s white family invites a black student from the south to stay with them and go to school in the North), Continue reading

Three Barbaras

So I recently finished Indomitable: The Life of Barbara Grier by Joanne Passet and at last I understand why those Naiad Press books ol’ Babs put out had that distinctive look. Barbara, it seems, was your classic lesbian cheapskate; she would do anything to maximize the number of books she could get in a box, and that included squishing more Continue reading

Sad Young Men Across the Pond

The Heart in Exile by Rodney Garland, W.H. Allen 1953

Cover line: A disturbingly frank novel of homosexuality in London

I discovered this gay British novel, not precisely a pulp but on the pulpy end of the spectrum, through a citation in my favorite book of 2015, The Spiv and The Architect. “Queer novels of the 1950s frequently exploited the continued currency of the traditional moral economy of furniture and design as a useful device for highlighting the domestic propriety of their respectable ‘homosexual’ protagonists,” wrote author Richard Hornsey, using The Heart in Exile as his example. He ties the novel’s detailed description of a bachelor flat to the way “a specter of malignant queerness haunted modern design,” leading to the perception of modern furniture as “an agent of corruption that would seduce children from the normative rituals of family life.” Who wouldn’t be intrigued?

The Plot: The suicide that ends many pulps starts this one. Tony Page, a queer, currently celibate psychiatrist takes on a new patient, Ann Hewitt. Continue reading

Just Plain Pulp

Kate, by Chet Kinsey, Beacon, 1959

Cover Line: “A novel that tells the truth about those homes for unwed mothers…”

Add this book to the category, “I’ve slogged through it so you don’t have to.” This is a perfect example of the mediocre stuff that was churned out solely to keep those drugstore bookracks filled. Did even Barbara Grier read this? I doubt it. Some friend said, Continue reading