A Fourth at Bolivia

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A Fourth at Bolivia
by Alison Barnet
MySouthEnd.com Contributor
Monday Dec 13, 2010

Mrs. Grant, my landlady, begins frying up Sammy’s supper every afternoon at 4 p.m. This is planned for shortly after Noah comes down from the top floor to take him out for a walk, but Noah from the top floor is unreliable, and some days fat Sam doesn’t get walked at all. (Lucky we have a backyard.) Sammy never misses dinner, though: fried chicken thighs, skirt steak, liverwurst, broccoli, and lettuce with mayonnaise. He likes the kind of liverwurst that comes in round pieces and won’t eat the kind that comes in a tube.

My landlady’s two rooms are much smaller than mine. She has her front room, where she plays cards and watches television, and a "sleep kitchen" in the back. Tall bureaus behind the stove and refrigerator form a wall, on the other side of which she and Sammy sleep on a narrow cot. In the top drawer of one bureau she claims to keep "pills to end it all" when the time comes.

Mrs. Grant, a 1910 graduate of the City Hospital Training School for Nurses, went to France as a nurse in World War I but never says much about it. She does, however, drop the names of French writers and actors, boasting to have "shown Sasha Guitry his first baby," whoever he was. She never says much about her husband either.

She intimidates me. That’s why she’s "Mrs. Grant" to me and "Mary" to everyone else. I don’t want to displease her in any way-by buying rump steak instead of skirt steak, getting my facts wrong, mispronouncing a name. She’s very particular about things, brutally honest. When I tell her a friend of mine is in a mental hospital, she says, "Well, I guess he’s just a basket case."

Dixie comes down from her third floor unit every evening. I hear her coming, stopping on each step to call out in her peculiar voice: "Hello, Sammy; hello, Sammy Darlin’." She’s in her late 70s with hair like a doll’s faded wig, puffy arms and legs and fat lips. She usually wears a long black skirt and a shapeless white undershirt with a jaunty scarf around her neck. When it’s cold, she wears loose-fitting galoshes and pinkish sweater arms on her legs, cuffs at the ankles. Sticking her legs out, she asks me, "How d’ya like my style?" From her straight-back chair by the door, she waves sticks at Sammy. "Oh dear, oh my, oh you Sammy," she says. "You’re so young and I’m so old. You’re grassy green and¬¬-I don’t know what getting old is."

Noah can’t hold a job for more than a few weeks, but there’s great excitement whenever he lands one. Mrs. Grant starts a joint bank account, expecting him to match every other dollar. He buys expensive tools and manuals, which he shows off to us - he’ll be paying on them for years after he’s laid off. At least he’s got a sense of humor, joking that his middle name is "Household Finance." He blames his problems on his thick ankles; because of them, he’s bottom heavy, off balance, and prey to an insatiable craving for doughnuts. A doctor’s diagnosis of hypoglycemia fits nicely into this theory: hypoglycemia caused the thick ankles that caused the imbalance and the insatiable craving for doughnuts. As with new jobs, he enthusiastically spends a fortune on vitamins and healthy but unappealing foods, only to helplessly wolf down a dozen Dunkin Donuts before he even makes it home.

Always home on the ground floor, Mrs. Grant is happy to have our company. We watch TV together. She loves Lawrence Welk, mediocre dancers, and Johnny Cash. Even though the shows are terrible, something makes me want to agree.

On Sundays, Mrs. Grant’s friends Madeline and Howard come over to play Bolivia, a type of Canasta, and although I’m terrible at cards, I’m invited to be the fourth because I’m a long sight better than the other residents. Dixie can’t handle any game more complicated than Crazy Eights, and, when she waves her chicken wings around at dinner, she annoys Madeline no end.

Madeline is a strong, no-nonsense nurse from Nova Scotia, a good fifteen years younger than Mrs. Grant. Howard, though, is glassy-eyed and goofy; his favorite expression is "Geeeeeeeeee!" According to Mrs. Grant, who is fuzzy on Catholic policies, they never married because Madeline is a Catholic and Howard is a Protestant. When they shared my apartment years ago, they maintained propriety by locking the sliding doors between the two big rooms and entering the hall toilet by separate routes.

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