Piedmont of North Carolina
nside the cemetery bordered by a waist-high iron fence and 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 and 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 children, Henry and Martha, stood a few feet away, heads bowed and eyes closed.
At cemetery edge, a young Arab driver in a dark suit and tie leaned against the front of one of the two freshly washed hearses, spotless but dull from decades of wear. 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-leg stool painfully searched the frets of her weary guitar for the strummed chords of "Just a Closer Walk with Thee." The service concluded, the mourners drifted toward the church, as 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 his brush stroke 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 trashcan with a crash of splintered 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 tool shed."
"Don't let her throw out any power tools," Henry said.
"I've only got a one bedroom apartment," Jessie said picking up her broom and sweeping.
"Well, she can't stay here alone. You'd have to move out here," Martha said.
"It's forty miles,"
"Get a job closer."
"They're no jobs here. They're no people."
"I can't afford it," Henry said. "Her living with us. 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. She held up a child's oak chair less than two and a half feet high, 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."
"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 out.
"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 tense 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.
"And who will pay for that?" Jessie said.
The silence intensified.
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 myself," Jessie said. "I can't afford it."
"Sell what's left after today," Martha said coming in from the kitchen and wiping her hands on a dishtowel.
"There's nothing of value," Jessie said. "You've taken everything."
"I'll try to send an allowance," Martha said.
"I can't afford more than a few dollars a month. Jake won't give it 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'll be the executor."
"It's the only way I can take her on."
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 to Henry as she went out the front door.
"I've got family responsibilities," Henry said.
"And a big boat," Martha retorted.
"I make just above poverty wages," Jessie said. "Hourly. Nothing guaranteed."
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.
For weeks after the funeral, from her bedroom, Jessie heard the quiet sobs from Carrie sleeping on the sofa bed in the living room. Carrie missed their parents and the farm, but she rarely spoke of them. But with time, the crying disappeared. Carrie had a job in a movie theater working behind the concession stand. She liked helping the patrons and considered her job a career to conquer. And she stayed busy. When Jessie returned from work as an assistant for an optometrist, she'd find Carrie polishing, scrubbing, and washing 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.
Jessie loved Carrie as best she could . . . better than she did Martha and Henry, for that matter . . . and convinced herself she liked having Carrie around, but she couldn't bury the burden of inherited parenthood. It wasn't personal. Jessie really didn't have room for a teen-age girl, or anybody, in her apartment . . . and . . . she felt trapped. Worst of all, there was no relief. Henry and Martha still refused to consider taking Carrie in, even on a rotating schedule, and Jessie had no support . . . and no money had been sent by either Henry or Martha.
The reality haunted Jessie now. Carrie 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. As Carrie settled in, Jessie 's dream of a loving husband and a happy brood of children of her own faded. So Jessie prayed and thought, thought and prayed, and finally accepted her new responsibilities of mothering Carrie would never go away. Jessie determined to bring up Carrie with their parents' Christian principles, and keep her innocent from worldly sins.
On a 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 keyboard with her index fingers. Mom's child's rocking chair–the aged, scratched and dented oak oiled and polished 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 when the screen displayed a chat-room return.
"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."
"You can't tell crap on the Internet. He might be a rapist, or a serial killer."
"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."
"He wants to meet you too."
"That will never happen."
Carrie typed in a reply and turned off the computer.
"You didn't say yes, did you?" Jessie said.
"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 sat with Carrie at a white-painted metal table for four at the second-floor food court of the mall. In front of them, twenty feet away, the escalator merged from the ground floor.
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 dangled from her ears.
"I hope he's not late," Carrie said for the second time.
"We're twenty minutes early," Jessie said. 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 on paper 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 inching above the meshing top stair of the escalator. He was six inches shorter than Carrie, built like he was prepubescent, but he wore adult clothes–a black short sleeve shirt, Sansabelt tan slacks, and white running shoes. His black hair shined, his white teeth gleamed when he smiled in contrast to 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 she 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 stared at him relentlessly
"It is a pleasure to meet you," Zamel said.
"Carrie has told me all about you. You are like mother to her."
"I'm her sister. She lives with me."
"She's 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 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."
"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 placed the milkshake before her . . . first, carefully laying a brown paper napkin underneath, and another one to the side, removing the straws from their paper wrappers careful to never touch them as he handed them to her, and then serving Carrie. He had a cup of water for himself.
"Thanks," Jessie said to Zamel but glancing quickly at Carrie to convince her she wasn't satisfied in anyway by Zamel's performance.
"Pleased to have the opportunity," Zamel said.
"Are you legal?" Jessie asked.
"I have 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 Internet. I work with computers."
Jessie squinted, her brow creased.
Carrie clasped Zamel’s arm.
"Leave us, Jessie," Carrie pleaded.
"I don't think so."
"I never . . ."
Carrie and Zamel had identical forlorn looks that made Jessie suspicious of predesigned agendas. Jessie sighed inwardly and stood and walked toward the Sears store entrance, looking back over her shoulder at Carrie and Zamel 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. What exactly had gone on?
"He is 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."
They got in the car. Jessie put a key in the ignition.
"We’re going to the museum next Sunday," Carrie said.
In the name of God! Jessie had hoped this would be the end. Not the beginning. Not Carrie falling for some Internet guy. And she cringed inwardly at Carrie's blatant disregard for her authority.
"Absolutely not!" she said. "Tell him, 'No.'"
"I can take the bus. He doesn’t have a car."
Jessie started the engine. "It’s over. I mean it." She backed out of parking space.
Carrie stared determinedly out the side window hoping to get a last glimpse of Zamel.
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