Coming to an end

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Coming to an end by Alison Barnet Contributor
Thursday Jun 16, 2011

My landlady was in the VA Hospital. After all, she’d been a World War I nurse. It was a long uphill bike ride, and when I got there, I had to walk through a gauntlet of busted-up Vietnam vets, all about my age, all making crude remarks. When I entered her private room, I was always struck by how small and fragile Mary looked propped up against the pillows.

Weeks went by, and Sammy continued to be a nuisance. I hated his incessant barking and having to feed and walk him and I couldn’t rely on Noah upstairs. If Mary came home, which we all unrealistically hoped, how could she possibly cope with this fat and unmanageable dog, a dog that even in better days had pushed her down and sat on her?

Prepared, I went to the hospital with a typed statement: "I, Mary, agree to give up my collie, Sammy, for adoption . . ." I felt like a sleazy high-pressure salesman as the paper tugged between us; she cried and looked at me with loathing. Although she eventually signed, we both knew I had betrayed her. Later that day, my friend Laurie and I drove to a kennel in Brighton and we turned Sammy in.

Mary’s lawyer came by. He thought the house should be sold; he’d been saying so all along. I felt panicky, quickly forming a mental picture of realtor Betty Gibson at the door, dressed in Victorian white and carrying a parasol along with a business-like clipboard. I loved the place and didn’t want to move. The lawyer was on his way down the stairs to the door and I was right behind him when I finally got up the nerve to say I was interested in buying the house. "Well, send me a letter outlining your finances," he said. I sent the letter off the next day. Although I was working, I had only $150 in savings and a little less than $100 in checking. I hoped he could read between the lines and tell how responsible I was, but he never got back to me.

Another day, on the same flight of stairs, Larry, the new second floor tenant, a friend of a friend, made me a proposal. His grandfather had left him some money, and he was looking to invest it. He offered to go in with me, lending me my share of the purchase price interest-free. The Englishman was also interested. Considerably older, 36 when we were 25, Nigel told too many puns and slept with too many women-as one was leaving, another was on the stoop-but we thought having another co-owner might make things easier. The three of us hardly knew each other, but it was, after all, the Seventies. We didn’t foresee any potential complications, personal or legal.

Mary’s cousin Skiddy got her into a nursing home in New Hampshire, and soon we were going up to Concord on weekends. By then, Erik, the OIC electronics teacher, was part of the visiting party; after all, he was living with me.

One day that spring, Mary’s lawyer, Larry, Nigel, and I met at her bedside to talk business. Our initial offer made her angry, and I felt as sleazy as the day I made her sign Sammy away. "I won’t take a penny less than $20,000!" she snapped.

When we closed, Larry taped a New Yorker cartoon to the faded rose wallpaper in the hall. A white middle-class couple is walking down a city street looking up at rowhouses similar to ours. Black families spill out of the houses and onto the stoops. Says the white woman, "Oh, Pete, what fun we could have doing over one of those brownstones." We had no intention of being that couple.

When Mary died, it was almost a year to the day of the attack. Skiddy said there would be no funeral as her body had already been shipped to the BU School of Medicine, per the instructions she kept under the phone.

Years later, I saw Larry outside the house. "You just missed something very strange," he told me. A cab had pulled up, and a woman and a huge collie had climbed out of the back seat. The woman said she’d found the dog wandering around Blackstone Square, four blocks away, wearing tags that said he belonged here. She couldn’t accept what Larry was telling her, that Mary was dead and no one could take the dog. At last, she and Sammy got back into the cab and drove away.

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