Sister Carrie

by William H. Coles

CHAPTER 1

2003

Piedmont of North Carolina

I

nside the cemetery—bordered by a waist-high iron fence, crowded with modest stone markers and wooden crosses, some draped with plastic flowers—two fresh graves waited side by side, flanked by the caskets of the mother and father of the Broward family. Carrie Broward, a tall, muscular girl with pretty facial features and short-cut straw-blond hair, stepped forward from the sparse crowd. Jessie Broward, her older sister, a full-figured woman with a close resemblance to her sister but with pecan-shell-brown hair, followed to lay flowers on their parents’ caskets. The other Broward siblings, Henry and Martha, stood a few feet away, heads bowed and eyes closed.

At the cemetery’s edge, a young Arab driver in a dark suit and tie leaned against one of the two freshly washed hearses, spotless but dull from decades of use. His eyes did not leave the sisters. A minister delivered a final prayer for the deceased. The gnarled fingers of an old woman sitting on a three-legged stool painfully searched the frets of her shabby guitar for the strummed chords of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” The service concluded, the mourners drifted toward the church, and the undertaker directed workers to lift the straps of the first coffin for its descent into the earth.

The next morning, the four Broward children gathered to divide their parents’ possessions at the modest, century-old family farmhouse with a tilted for-sale sign on a stick at the end of the dirt drive.

“I am not taking on responsibility for a seventeen-year-old,” Henry said, pausing mid-brushstroke and turning from the window frame he was painting.

“Quiet, she’ll hear you,” Martha said from the kitchen, throwing a cracked and chipped casserole dish into a metal trash can with a crash of splintering glass, and turning back to scrub glassware in the sink.

Jessie went to the front door to look for Carrie. “She’s carrying stuff out of the toolshed,” she said.

“Don’t let her throw out any power tools,” Henry said.

“She’s laying things out for us to see.”

“She’ll take the best.”

“She doesn’t want power tools.”

“Anything of value.”

“Stop it. You don’t have an ounce of her goodness.”

“You think so much of her. You take care of her.”

“I’ve only got a one-bedroom apartment,” Jessie said, picking up a broom and sweeping.

“Move out here with her,” Martha said. “Take care of the place until we sell it.”

“It’s forty miles.”

“Get a job closer.”

“There’s no jobs here. No people.”

“We can’t afford her living with us,” Henry said. “Marie is trying to get into college.”

Carrie came in the front door. Jessie stopped sweeping the fireplace hearth.

“Can I keep this?” Carrie asked, holding up a two-and-a-half-foot-high child’s oak chair with a hoop back and spindle slats.

“It’s junk,” Henry said.

“It’s was mother’s when she was a little girl,” Carrie said. “She told me.”

“Bullshit.”

“Leave it in the shed,” Martha said. “Sell it with the house.”

“I want it for my kids,” Carrie said. She set the chair defiantly near the front door and went back to the shed to finish cleaning.

“That is exactly why I won’t take her,” Martha said. “Obstinate. Disrespectful. I have no responsibility to live with that for the rest of my life.” A stemmed glass splintered as she threw it in the trash.

They worked in charged silence for a few minutes.

“You’re the one, Jessie. You’re closest to her,” Henry said.

“She’d at least be able to stay close to where she was born,” Martha added. “She doesn’t have the smarts to make it in a big city.”

“Move into a bigger apartment, for Christ’s sake,” Henry said to Jessie.

“And who will pay for that?” Jessie asked.

Silence.

“Well?”

Martha went somewhere into the back of the kitchen, out of view. Henry stared out the window and kept working.

“I’m not taking her on,” Jessie said. “I can’t afford it.”

“Sell what’s left after today,” Martha said, coming back and wiping her hands on a dish towel.

“There’s nothing of value,” Jessie said. “You’ve taken everything.”

“I’ll try to send an allowance,” Martha said.

“How much?”

“I can’t afford more than a few dollars a month. Jake won’t give anything extra to me. I’ll have to take it out of my house budget.”

“Then I get what’s in the bank accounts,” Jessie said.

“No way,” Henry said. “I’m the executor.”

“It’s the only way I can take her on,” Jessie said.

Martha picked up a box full of dishes and started toward her truck. She looked to Henry. “You’ve got more money than all of us put together,” she said.

“I’ve got family responsibilities,” Henry said.

“And a big boat,” Martha retorted.

“I make just above poverty wage,” Jessie said. “Hourly. Nothing guaranteed. No pension.”

Martha reentered. “Give her the money, Henry. It can’t be much anyway.”

Henry paused. “Only part. And only if Carrie is living with her.”

By late afternoon, cars and a van were packed, and Martha left for Michigan and Henry for Arizona. As Jessie locked up the house, she pretended not to see that Carrie had tucked the child’s chair under some blankets in the back of her car.

Jessie loved Carrie as best she could—better than she did Martha and Henry, for that matter—and tried to convince herself she liked having Carrie around. What pissed her off was the family dumping Carrie on her. Henry and Martha still refused to consider taking Carrie in, even on a rotating schedule, and no money had been sent by either Henry or Martha. With her two rooms, a bathroom with only a shower, and a kitchenette, Carrie was never more than a few feet from her. And Carrie had no direction in life. She had dropped out of high school to work the farm, selling produce roadside and in town markets. She would never go back to school, and college had never been considered.

For weeks after the funeral, from her bedroom, Jessie heard Carrie’s quiet sobs coming from the living room, where Carrie slept on the sofa bed. During the day Carrie had nothing to do, so Jessie got her a job in a movie theater working at the concession stand. It worked out pretty well. Carrie liked helping the patrons and considered her job a career to conquer. And she started staying more busy at home. Now when Jessie returned from her work as an assistant for an optometrist, she’d find Carrie polishing the family silver, scrubbing sinks and toilets, or vacuum cleaning the apartment. For recreation Carrie chatted on the Internet on Jessie’s computer, or watched movies or late-night reruns of I Love Lucy on TV.

As Carrie settled in, Jessie’s dream of a loving husband and a happy brood of her own children faded. Prayer brought no solution; Carrie would never go away. Jessie had no choice and she resolved to bring up Carrie with their parents’ Christian principles, keep her innocent, and protect her from worldly sins.

 

chpt-1

CHAPTER 2

One Tuesday, almost four months after the funeral, Jessie waited at the apartment front door to take Carrie to work at the Movieplex. Carrie, who was in Jessie’s cramped bedroom with the door open, typed laboriously on Jessie’s computer with her index fingers. Mom’s rocking chair—the aged, scratched, and dented oak gleaming now from oiling and polishing by Carrie—sat against the wall squeezed between the bed and the computer stand.

“Hurry, it’s raining,” Jessie called.

“I can take the bus,” Carrie called back.

“I can’t be late. Shut it off.”

“He wants to meet me!” Carrie exclaimed as the screen displayed a chat-room return.

“Who?”

“Zamel.”

“Zamel? What’s with Zamel?”

“He says he saw me at the funeral.”

Jessie entered the room. “You don’t know him.”

“He’s single. He lives alone. He fixes computers and works part time for the funeral home.”

“Turn it off. You can’t tell crap on the Internet. He might be a rapist, or a serial killer.”

“He’s not.”

“A terrorist, even!”

“He loves animals. He wants a puppy. He misses his mother in Iran.”

“Don’t promise him anything.”

“He wants to meet me at the mall.”

“No!”

“He wants to meet you, too.”

“That will never happen.”

Carrie typed a reply and turned off the computer.

“You didn’t say yes, did you?” Jessie asked.

“I can do what I want.”

“Not until you’re eighteen. And maybe not then.”

Carrie grabbed a jacket from the bed as Jessie slipped into her rain gear and opened the door.

“You are not going to see that boy!” Jessie said as they walked to the car.

Two days later, Jessie and Carrie sat at a white-painted metal table for four in the second-floor mall food court. Jessie wore jeans and a sweatshirt; Carrie had on tight slacks and a lace-trimmed blouse low cut to show cleavage, and orange plastic hoop earrings dangling from her ears.

“I hope he’s not late,” Carrie said for the second time.

“We’re twenty minutes early,” Jessie replied with irritation. She had no idea how to handle this infatuation that seemed to make Carrie contrary to everything she said. She picked up a picture of the guy that Carrie had printed from the Net. “I can’t see his face,” she said. It was fuzzy like a picture from a store surveillance camera.

Carrie jumped up. “There he is!”

Zamel rose inch by inch above the meshing top stair of the escalator. He was six inches shorter than Carrie and built like he was prepubescent, but he wore adult clothes—a black short-sleeved shirt, tan Sansabelt slacks, and white running shoes. His black hair shined, his white teeth gleamed when he smiled, contrasting with his dark skin. Carrie ran and took his hand but he glanced at Jessie and then, gently and shyly, pulled his hand away. Jessie wasn’t ready to acknowledge him yet and remained impassive; still, he nodded to her as he and Carrie approached.

Zamel pulled out a chair for Carrie and then stood before Jessie, who was almost at eye level with him while sitting, and staring at him relentlessly.

“It is a pleasure to meet you,” Zamel said.

“Really?”

“Carrie has told me all about you. You are like a mother to her.”

“I’m her sister. She lives with me.”

“She told me. I’m so sorry to hear about your dear parents. So sudden.”

Jessie shook her head in disbelief. “You might as well sit down.”

“It would be my pleasure to buy you a drink. I know Carrie loves Dr. Pepper with lots of ice.”

Jessie paused, concerned that she was not Christian enough to be ashamed of her impulse to order something expensive. “Chocolate milkshake,” she said.

“My favorite also.” Zamel left for drinks.

Carrie beamed. “Isn’t he wonderful? So polite.”

“He’s darker than I thought.”

“He’s Persian.”

“Like Persia is in Africa somewhere. He’s not one of us.”

Carrie turned her head away in anger.

“Break it off now,” Jessie said. “Don’t let it get complicated.”

“Be nice to him, Jessie. For me.”

Jessie begrudgingly admired the way Zamel laid a brown paper napkin on the table, placed the milkshake on the napkin, removed the tops of the paper wrappers from two straws—careful to never touch them directly—and handed them to her, then presented another folded napkin before he served Carrie her Dr. Pepper. He had a cup of water without ice for himself.

“Thanks,” Jessie said to Zamel, glancing sternly at Carrie to convince her she wasn’t satisfied in any way by the performance.

“Pleased to have the opportunity,” Zamel said.

“Are you legal?” Jessie asked.

“I have a student visa. I take classes at Stringer Community College. I hope to apply for a green card.”

“You have family?”

“Yes. In Iran.”

“You saw Carrie at the funeral?”

“I was there. Yes.”

“You tracked her down?”

“Not exactly. I found her on the Internet. I work with computers.”

Jessie squinted, her brow creased.

Carrie clasped Zamel’s arm. “Leave us, Jessie,” she pleaded.

“I don’t think so.”

“You promised.”

“I never . . .”

“P-l-e-a-s-e!”

Carrie and Zamel wore identical forlorn looks that made Jessie suspicious of predesigned agendas. She sighed inwardly and walked toward the Sears store entrance, looking back over her shoulder at the two of them, now talking intently.

Two hours later Jessie led Carrie by the arm from the mall to her Ford Focus. Zamel waited near the doors of the mall exit, grinning. Exactly what had gone on?

“He’s so cool,” Carrie said.

They walked to opposite sides of the car. Jessie paused before unlocking the doors.

“That’s it. No more, Carrie. He’s not right for you.”

Carrie tensed. They got in the car. Jessie put the key in the ignition. “We’re going to the museum next Sunday,” Carrie said.

In the name of God! She’s out of control, Jessie thought. This had to be the end, not the beginning. I’m not letting my sister fall for some Internet guy. She cringed inwardly at Carrie’s blatant disregard for her authority.

“Absolutely not!” Jessie said. “Tell him no.”

“I can go by bus. He doesn’t have a car.”

Jessie started the engine. “It’s over. I mean it.” She backed out of the parking space. Carrie stared determinedly out the side window, straining for a last glimpse of Zamel.

 

chpt-2

CHAPTER 3

Sunday was a free day at the museum. Jessie waited with Carrie outside the front door. Zamel walked briskly from the bus stop carrying a bunch of flowers, the stems wrapped in a paper towel: daisies, bluebonnets, Queen Anne’s lace, a few dandelions, a white blossom, a few pussy willows. He probably found them in a field.

He bowed to a smiling Carrie, then presented the flowers to Jessie. They had clearly cooked this up in their Internet chats. Jessie’s eyes moistened but she quickly recovered with a stern look, struggling to hide pleasure that was impossible to explain and out of proportion to the gift of the scraggly bouquet.

“Do you like them?” Zamel asked.

“They’re all right,” Jessie said.

“For a beautiful lady.”

“Monkey babble.” Jessie pulled her keys from her jacket pocket. “Wait here,” she said, taking the bouquet and walking to her parked car.

She opened the trunk and carefully positioned the flowers. She freed a bloom in danger of being crushed by the closing lid. She twisted a stem to free a bluebell. She locked the car and smiled reluctantly to herself, making sure Zamel and Carrie could not see her pleasure.

Jessie followed Carrie and Zamel through the turnstiles into the lobby. Zamel picked up a guide map at an information kiosk and traced a route through the galleries with his finger. As he and Carrie set off, Jessie followed yards behind, keeping them in sight, up the grand staircase to the galleries.

Jessie browsed alone in the main gallery, careful to position herself so she didn’t lose sight of Carrie and Zamel, side by side, in an adjacent gallery. A Victorian reproduction of a life-size bronze statue of a nude male Greek—in full extension throwing a discus—caught her eye. The genitalia were worn shiny smooth from the touches of art patrons. After a quick feel, Jessie pulled back her hand and furtively glanced over to see if Carrie and Zamel had seen. I can’t believe I did that! Carrie and Zamel we’re staring intently at a painting the size of a barn door of a blue eyeball on a yellow background. When they turned, Jessie looked to a marble Madonna-and-infant statue. When she looked again to Carrie and Zamel, she blushed with humiliation. They saw me. They were laughing.

Flustered, she moved along quickly, unable to concentrate on the art. Carrie and Zamel had disappeared.

She paused to calm down and collect her thoughts. She had every right to touch that statue. It’s not like a sin. Thousands of others had done it. And she was here to protect Carrie. Don’t get distracted! When she saw Carrie and Zamel cross a corridor a few minutes later, she headed toward them; Zamel left Carrie when he saw Jessie coming.

“What’s wrong with him?” she asked Carrie.

“He wants to be alone with me and he’s afraid to hurt your feelings.”

But Jessie wondered if he might have been offended by the touch. Something in his religion maybe. He’s no doubt sexist! She took Carrie’s arm. “This isn’t working.”

“It’s wonderful.” Carrie pulled away.

Jessie grabbed Carrie’s arm. “Let’s go.”

Zamel arrived. “It is wonderful painting, don’t you think?” he said, pointing vaguely to a wall covered with paintings. “Maybe you join us later for a look at the mummy?”

“What mummy?”

“I think in the Egyptian display in the basement.”

Jessie shook her head in disbelief. “You’re too smooth for your own good.”

“I mean no offense, Miss Jessie.”

“You can’t offend me. I don’t listen.”

“I just meant . . .”

“Please, Jessie, just for a little while,” Carrie said again.

“Where will you go?”

“Just around here.”

“Maybe in sculpture?” Zamel said.

“Don’t leave modern art,” Jessie said, thinking specifically about the nudes in sculpture. With just paintings on the wall and only one skinny stick-sculpture of a saint in the gallery center there was little to hide behind in modern art, and little to identify in the abstract imagery that might be erotic to the young.

“As you wish,” Zamel said to Jessie.

“I’ll be around. You just won’t see me.”

 

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