Fiction Fiction 2011

Little Sister

Marla had felt she’d never really had a sister, that she’d been visited by some strange goblin or ghost. But then she went into Daddy’s bank vault after he died.
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Whatever Marla did, she did so well. The golden spoon she’d been born with had never failed her, but her little sister had gagged on the same spoon. Little Sister wasn’t so little. She was a twelve-pound baby who inherited most of Marla’s toys. When she couldn’t solve their intricate engines, Marla would have to be called in. Little Sister had a name, but no one seemed to recollect it. She’d turn glum or fall into terrible fits. She struck Marla with a shoe when she was three and Marla was four.

She was banished to a back bedroom in the family’s palatial apartment on Central Park West. Soon she had her own guardian, and Marla seldom saw her. When Marla was five, Little Sister disappeared from the apartment. Soon Marla began to feel as if she’d never really had a sister, but had been visited by some strange goblin or ghost.

Little Sister was never mentioned at the dinner table. There were no pictures of her in the apartment. The back bedroom was turned into a storage bin, but a lock was on the door, and Marla couldn’t get in. Her father, Mortimer Silk, was the arbitrage king of Wall Street. He made fortunes on the rise and fall of currencies, and was the commander of his own “frigate,” as he liked to call his firm. Her mother, Lollie, had been the homecoming queen at college. And whenever Marla had a jolt in her mind and mentioned Little Sister, Lollie would ruffle her nose.

“Dearest, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. You have no sister.”

Marla wouldn’t pester Daddy, because he was so sensitive and might have started to cry. So she interrogated the doormen at her father’s Art Deco apartment-palace. And they looked at her as if she had seen her own goblin in the elevator.

“We can’t help you, Miss Marla.”

She lived with that goblin, grew up with it, and when she graduated from Columbia Law, she volunteered for duty aboard her father’s frigate. Within a year she was chief counsel at Silk & Silk. She married her high-school sweetheart, had two children, and lived in the same apartment-palace on Central Park West.

Mortimer died before he was sixty. Marla cleaned up all the mess. She couldn’t rescue Silk & Silk, but she could sell off most of its assets. And while going through her father’s safety-deposit boxes, she found the first hard evidence of Little Sister. Daddy hadn’t abandoned her. Sister’s real name was Irene. Mortimer had put her in a home for alcoholic movie stars and mental patients on an isolated block near the Bronx Botanical Garden. Mortimer had kept a record of every transaction with Rhineland Manor, like a ship captain’s log. He’d visited Little Sister every second week, set up an account for her in perpetuity. Marla wouldn’t have uncovered a single clue if she hadn’t gone into the vault at Daddy’s bank. Irene wasn’t even mentioned in Mortimer’s will.

She ran home with all the records, confronted Lollie. Marla ranted for an hour, but Lollie didn’t blink once, didn’t falter under Marla’s attack.

“We did what was best,” Lollie insisted. “She tried to smother you with a pillow while you were asleep. Little Sister was an aberrant child.”

“Mummy, Little Sister has a name—Irene.”

“You mustn’t shout,” Lollie said. “No one ever called her Irene.”

Marla decided not to tell her children until she had gone up to see Little Sister for herself. She’d become chief counsel at another arbitrage firm, and she had the company chauffeur drive her into the wildland of the Bronx. What she saw wasn’t so wild. Rhineland Manor was in a neighborhood of Tudor-style apartment houses. The mansion itself had once been a cloister for decrepit nuns, and was surrounded by a sculpted garden.

Marla had a hard time getting through the mansion’s gates. It meant nothing that she was her father’s executor and one of his heirs. Little Sister wasn’t insane and could decide for herself whom she wanted to see.

Marla could have gone to court, but she wasn’t going to sue the mansion and Little Sister. And there was another problem about Irene. She would answer to no name but Bunny.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Silk,” the chief nurse said. “Bunny says she has no sister.”

Marla had discarded her husband’s name. After her divorce, she was known as Mrs. Silk. And she was just as stubborn as Little Sister.

“Then I guess I’ll have a very long wait. And even if my father has paid Bunny’s upkeep for the rest of her natural life, I’ll dig right into his estate, and ask to have that money returned. So you may have a pauper on your hands.”

The nurses whispered among themselves, and then Bunny appeared. She had broad shoulders, looked like a man. Marla could sense the rage in her. Perhaps Lollie hadn’t made up that tale about Little Sister trying to smother her with a pillow.

Something was wrong with Bunny’s eyes. They seemed to wander even as they took Marla in. There was a pulse between her eyebrows, like some strange target.

Marla wasn’t sure how to introduce herself.

“I’m your sister,” she said.

“I don’t remember you,” Bunny said. Her voice wasn’t tentative. And it didn’t have the lilt of Manhattan. Marla couldn’t trace the accent. Little Sister could have been the soprano of Rhineland Manor and the Bronx Botanical Garden.

“But Daddy visited you every other week. He must have told you about …”

Marla couldn’t even finish her sentence. Mortimer had told Little Sister nothing about the Silks.

Bunny smiled. “He called himself Uncle Mort. He took me on excursions … and he paid for all my tutors. I couldn’t sit in a classroom with other kids. No school would have me. I destroyed the first classroom I was in. Ripped out every seat … Why the hell are you here?”

“Bunny, I found—”

“Don’t call me that,” Little Sister said. Her eyes had a yellowish gleam. The smile was gone, replaced by a wolf’s grin. “That’s for my friends. Uncle called me Irene. You know, from that song, ‘Goodnight Irene.’ He sang it to me all the time, said he’d see me in his dreams.”

Marla was filled with her own rage, not against Little Sister, but against Mortimer, who hadn’t serenaded her once.

“And he cried a lot, said he couldn’t take me with him, because no insurance policy in the whole world could guard against a danger like me.”

“Daddy didn’t say that.”

“Yes, he did,” Bunny said, smiling again. The dentists around Rhineland Manor couldn’t have been so perfect—she had missing teeth. And then her accent started to crumble; she sounded like the gang leader of some housing project in the neighborhood. “Listen, girl, I’m not that stupid. I’m in this dump because of you. I’ll rip your tits out, like the sockets on a chair.”

Two male nurses arrived and led Bunny upstairs to the living quarters, while Marla was summoned to the directress’s office, where a certain Mrs. Mahler was waiting. The directress seemed about fifty. She served Marla coffee in a beautiful cup.

“I suppose I’m a pain in the ass,” Marla said. “An intruder.”

“Not at all,” Mrs. Mahler said. “It happens all the time. A relative hidden away, not entirely for medical reasons. No one’s under lock and key.”

“But I thought my sister was violent. Didn’t she tear up her own school?”

“She had a tantrum. But we kept a nurse in the class, you see. And your father chose a better arrangement. He hired a bunch of sophomores from Fordham University. It was quite convenient. Fordham’s ten blocks away. The students liked to come here, and your sister received a fine education.”

“Did my father pick the tutors himself?”

“Indeed. Often he was here every other day.”

Marla couldn’t hide the shudder that leapt right through her. Every other day. She had to keep herself from asking if Daddy had his own bed at this mansion. She took out her checkbook and began to scribble a check. Mrs. Mahler seemed perplexed.

“We can’t accept money from you, Mrs. Silk.”

“A few extras,” Marla said. “In case my sister shatters one of your coffee cups.”

“But it’s forbidden.”

“Forbidden by whom?” Marla had to ask.

“Your father. He didn’t want Bunny to become a burden. He’s endowed this home, you see, and we stand to lose that endowment if the financial arrangement for his daughter has been tampered with, or compromised in any way.”

Marla began to wonder if the directress had her own law degree from Fordham. She didn’t argue. She thanked Mrs. Mahler and said she wouldn’t trouble her or Little Sister again.

But her anger turned to bile. Mortimer had shut her out, denied Marla the rights to her own little sister. She had her chauffeur drive from the Botanical Garden to the Madison Avenue offices of her father’s lawyer. She gave Martin Goodson, Esq., fifteen minutes of warning. But when Marla arrived in Goodson’s office, all the senior partners were there. Goodson was a portly man who wrote novels in his spare time. He’d never cheated Mortimer out of a nickel.

“Martin,” she said, “I’d like to see the codicil to my father’s will.”

“The will didn’t have one, Marla.”

“Then I’ll subpoena all your records. I’m Dad’s executor, not you.”

Goodson motioned to his partners, and they all left the room.

“If Daddy set up an endowment, I’m going to claim he wasn’t in his right mind. I don’t trust that shyster home in the Bronx. It smacks of a prison.”

“Marla, did you know that your mother and father once had a wolf?”

She should have been furious, with her father’s lawyer going off on some tangent like that. But it pricked her imagination. “What wolf?”

“A Siberian wolf dog with a white coat and silver eyes. They called her Princess. She was the envy of your father’s building. And she was devoted to Mort, terribly devoted. That white wolf would only eat from your father’s hand.”

A she-wolf with silver eyes on Central Park West. Marla had a horrible premonition.

“Then I was born,” she said. “And the wolf was jealous.”

“She attacked the doormen. Mort had to put her away.”

Marla had two daughters in their teens. They would text at the dinner table, text while they brushed their teeth. They loved Marla, but considered her a relic from some century without tweets. So it was futile to mention a maiden aunt.

But it was Lollie who read the sad lines on her daughter’s brow.

“You went up to see that maniac, didn’t you?”

“Mummy, she’s not a maniac. She’s a prisoner in a golden cage. But why didn’t you tell me about the wolf?”

And now it was Lollie who had that fierce pulse between her eyes. “Princess wasn’t a wolf. Your father couldn’t be consoled. He wept for days.”

And now Marla could weave in all the particulars of the tale. Daddy had to make a second sacrifice, give up another she-wolf, Little Sister, who had rages he couldn’t control. He tried and tried, with a little army of specialists and shamans. But they must have come to the same conclusion: the wolf cub couldn’t live at home, or Marla might have been in mortal danger. So they found a way to “gas” Little Sister and keep her alive.

And Marla, by now, had become a kind of golem, whose husband had left her for his secretary. No, she was a succubus who fed from afar on Little Sister’s blood. She thought of resigning her job. She had love affairs with silly men. A succubus might as well feed on someone’s blood.

And then she got a call from Rhineland Manor. Little Sister wanted to see her. Marla borrowed the same chauffeur and company car.

She could hardly believe the transformation. Bunny’s hair was longer. Her shoulders were tucked in. She wore pumps and a silk blouse. Most of her masculinity was gone. They sat on the mansion’s veranda, could listen to the lions in the Bronx Zoo. Bunny didn’t have the musk of a prisoner. She served coffee in a silver tray. They had almond biscuits from an Italian bakery on Arthur Avenue.

“I’m shameless,” Bunny said. “I put on a big act … do you know how many times I dreamt of sitting here with you?”

“But you could have asked Uncle Mort to bring me along. I would have come … Did he ever talk about me?”

“Sometimes. But he never said we were sisters.”

Daddy wanted to keep Little Sister in a grandiose closet. He didn’t have to talk about money and ambition with her, about arbitrage …

And then a thought seized Marla. “Did Daddy ever mention his wolf dog, Princess?”

Suddenly Little Sister’s eyes were flecked with wild spots. She began to mold an almond biscuit in her hand. She looked like an ax murderer in her silk blouse.

“That was his pet name for me—Princess. He took me there …”

There,” Marla muttered.

“He put up a marker after Princess died. He had a tiny gravestone dug into the earth, in Central Park.”

“I don’t believe you,” Marla said. It was a fabrication, a vast plot to rob Marla of whatever tranquility she had left. There was no such creature as Princess, no wolf dog with a white coat, no matter what Daddy had told his lawyer, or what Lollie had said. Lollie always lied. No wolf had been put to sleep on Marla’s account.

“I don’t believe you … about the marker.”

Little Sister clutched Marla’s hand; Marla thought the bones in her fingers would break. But she didn’t squeal.

“Uncle Mort had a pair of silver eyes painted on it.”

Marla thought she would swoon. Little Sister released her hand. And Marla fled the mansion like a half-crazed vagabond.

Marla was caught in a maelstrom and a widening mesh. She dreamt of wolf dogs in Central Park. Winter came, and she would wander about after every snowfall, sometimes in the midst of a storm. But she didn’t neglect her court cases. She had a wolf’s silver eyes in court. Lawyers were frightened to sue her firm. Marla would tear witnesses apart, Marla went for the throat. But she wouldn’t visit Little Sister again, wouldn’t make those excursions across the Henry Hudson Bridge. The Bronx fell out of her dreams.

Then she had a visitor at her office on Lexington Avenue—two visitors. They had come uninvited. But Marla couldn’t send her own sister away. Bunny was wearing a coat of Siberian fur. The man with her was in some kind of uniform. Marla had seen him before. He was the gardener at Rhineland Manor.

Marla didn’t know how to behave. She’d never had Little Sister in her office, and with a male gardener. She summoned her male secretary from his cubicle and had him fetch cups of coffee and little cakes from the firm’s own kitchen. She had Bunny and the gardener sit on the black leather couch beside her desk. Bunny wouldn’t take off her coat.

“Sis,” she said, “we’re getting married.”

Marla felt a tug in her throat. This gardener hadn’t made much of an impression. His hair wasn’t combed. He couldn’t even shave correctly. He had the beginnings of a mustache. And he was much younger than the heiress of Rhineland Manor.

“Bunny, aren’t you going to introduce me to your fiancé?”

“Sis, meet Roger Blunt. He was one of my tutors.”

Marla shuddered at the sound of that name. Roger Blunt. But he had the bluest eyes in all of Manhattan and the Bronx. That was a conniver’s color—no, it was the camouflage of a seducer.

“I was hopeless without Roger, Sis, couldn’t even have a conversation. He calmed me down, taught me how to converse with other human beings.”

Marla had to be careful around this Roger Blunt. “Bunny,” she said. “Gardeners at convalescent homes don’t often become tutors.”

Little Sister was growing agitated; that pulse between her eyes reappeared.

“Rog is no gardener. That’s temporary. Mrs. Mahler had him sent over from Fordham. He was a divinity student. That’s what attracted me. He was close to God.”

Marla couldn’t suppress her lawyer’s instincts. “Why isn’t he a divinity student now?”

She knew she was playing with fire. Roger Blunt didn’t have to come here in a gardener’s uniform. He wanted to provoke Marla, frighten her even. Little Sister slumped in her seat and began to whimper.

“Bunny,” Marla said, “I … ”

The gardener’s malicious smile cut her off.

“Mrs. Silk,” he said, in his own silken voice. “Bunny is what the staff and the other patients decided to call Irene, to keep her a child. But she’s thirty-seven years old. She has the right to be Irene.”

“I’m sorry,” Marla said.

The gardener must have studied up on state law. Little Sister hadn’t been written out of Daddy’s will. Daddy just wanted to keep her hidden. And so this secret sister stood to inherit half of whatever Marla had inherited. And Roger Blunt pounced on Marla with his blue eyes.

“I dropped out of divinity school. And the home was kind enough to hire me. I’d been a gardener before.”

“Roger,” Marla said, mustering as much silk as she could. “How much will you need?”

“A hundred thousand dollars.”

Marla laughed to herself. Roger Blunt wasn’t even trying to burgle Daddy’s will. He just wanted little pieces of Marla’s flesh. She had a mad urge to write a check and get rid of him. He’d cash it and run away to some other badland. And Little Sister would mourn him for the rest of her life.

“And where will both of you live?”

“In the Bronx. Moving somewhere else would unsettle Irene. She knows every squirrel in Bronx Park. I have a room in the attic. Mrs. Mahler has agreed to let me live there—until we’re married.”

“And is the hundred thousand for a wedding party?”

Little Sister started to guffaw. “We had the party, Sis. At Rhineland … It would have been a lot less fun after the wedding.”

“That money is to pay my bills,” said Roger Blunt. “I owe Fordham a ton.”

Marla tapped a button on her phone: it was a signal to her secretary, who knocked, and entered. “You’re wanted in the conference room, Mrs. Silk.”

“Irene, I’ll be right back.”

She dialed Mrs. Mahler from another office and was quite severe once the directress came to the phone.

“Mrs. Mahler, what the hell is going on? Are you in the habit of hiring charlatans and gigolos as your gardener?”

There was complete silence, and Marla assumed she had lost the connection. Then Mrs. Mahler’s voice broke through that silence.

“He is a charlatan. But Rog brought Bunny back from the dead.”

Marla raged. Her shoulders puffed out. She began plotting strategies to shut the convalescent home.

“Mahler, do we have to bring melodrama to the table? If my sister was so ill, why didn’t you inform me?”

“You forget, Mrs. Silk. I’m forbidden to call any member of the family. That was in our covenant with your father. Oh, we did have a doctor from Bronx-Lebanon. He gave her some vitamin B shots. But she still couldn’t get out of bed. And then Rog started reading poems to her. He chanted them, really. He’d been her tutor.”

“What kind of poems?” Marla asked, like some special prosecutor.

“I can’t remember. I wouldn’t listen in. But they were poems you might have in a high-school curriculum. Joyce Kilmer and George Pope Morris—you know, ‘Woodman, spare that tree.’ She adored poems about trees.”

Marla returned to her office and wrote a check for a hundred thousand dollars. She didn’t touch the fiduciary fund from her father’s estate. Marla tapped into her own private account. She disliked the smell of victory that seemed to waft right from the gardener’s stale clothes. She didn’t care. The gardener could go to hell. Little Sister rose up from the couch and kissed Marla on the cheek.

“Now you’re looking after me, Sis. Tell me what Uncle Mort said every time he had to leave—tell me!

Marla didn’t even have to guess. “Goodnight Irene.”

She’d landed in the middle of a plague. She dreamt of this gardener with his slick blue eyes. None of her lovers could satisfy her now; even when they licked the life out of her, she kept seeing those blue eyes. She was miserable. She thought of hiring her two shadow men, those fixers who had kept Mortimer out of jail after he’d been indicted for tax evasion. These shadow men had managed to scatter all the government’s witnesses. But what could they do about Roger Blunt? Little Sister’s life seemed to depend on him.

There were no more demands for money, no more visits from the lovebirds. She thought about visiting them, planned her voyage in the company car, even imagined crossing Spuyten Duyvil Creek on the Henry Hudson, seeing that narrow woodland at the very edge of Inwood Hill Park. But she couldn’t seem to manage the trip, consumed as she was by some dread that made her shiver half the night.

Then she got a call from the convalescent home. She sailed across Spuyten Duyvil Creek in the company car, rushed through the gate at Rhineland Manor. Mrs. Mahler met her on the front porch.

“Did that charlatan abscond with the money?” she asked. “Mahler, it doesn’t matter. I’ll lure him back with an even bigger net. My sister won’t have to suffer.”

“My dear,” Mrs. Mahler said, “the problem is much more serious than that. It seems our charlatan already has a wife—and two toddlers. And he’s moved with them to Montana, or Delaware. I’m not certain. But Bunny’s sick. She’s had some kind of an attack. I’ve called Bronx-Lebanon.”

Marla leapt upstairs to her sister’s room. She’d never seen Rhineland’s inner sanctum. Sister’s bedroom was quite small, with very simple furniture, but the rear wall was cluttered with photographs, and Marla was wounded by the sight of them. Her whole damn history was on that wall; snapshots of Sister when she was one and Marla was two; shots of them a few years later, Sister hovering over Marla, like a little giant with a look of rampant rage; shots of Sister with the guardian Daddy had hired for her; shots of Sister in Central Park, but nothing of Sister after that. The rest of the wall was devoted to Marla and Marla’s two daughters: Marla in her graduation gown, Marla on a trip to Tunis with her husband and daughters, Marla touring Lisbon as she looked for her father’s Marrano ancestors, Marla at Silk & Silk, Marla at her new firm—Marla, Marla everywhere. And hidden among this tapestry was an old, tattered picture of Mortimer’s Siberian wolf dog; Princess’s face was obscured, but not her white coat and one diamond-pure eye.

Marla couldn’t keep from sobbing. She sat down on Sister’s bed. Irene had lost her hulking look. Her eyes were full of fever. Her shoulders were as narrow and delicate as a little girl’s.

“Irene,” she whispered. “I’ll find Roger Blunt. I’ll send his wife and two kids to China.”

“I’m sorry I tricked you, Sis. That money was never for us. I knew about Rog’s wife. They were in trouble. He didn’t have enough to feed his family.”

“Then you weren’t in love with the gardener?”

“I was. A little. We kissed and played around. And he sang songs to me.”

“‘Goodnight Irene.’”

“No,” she said. “That was between Uncle Mort and me.”

“But why did Daddy give you all those pictures to decorate your wall?”

Sister stared at Marla with her fevered eyes. “Because I wanted them. I begged. I had tantrums.”

Marla touched her sister’s face for the first time. She was the one who needed comfort now; she’d been Daddy’s accomplice when she should have screamed and screamed and gotten her sister back.

It was Marla’s fault. Never mind a phantom wolf dog. Marla had sucked up all the air around her. Daddy wasn’t protecting Marla from Irene. He was preserving Little Sister from Marla’s rapaciousness, hiding Sister in their Bronx retreat.

Little Sister started to cough. Marla wiped her mouth with a handkerchief. But something scratched at her.

“Sister, why did you pretend not to know me when I came here that first time?”

“I was scared. I kept looking at you and your kids on my wall. I ripped off their shoulders in my dreams.”

“Good,” Marla said. “Then you won’t have to rip off their shoulders when you all meet.”

Little Sister laughed. A doctor arrived from Bronx-Lebanon with an ambulance attendant. The doctor wore a turban. He might have been a Sikh. They must have come in a great hurry. They’d forgotten to bring a stretcher. So they carried Little Sister down the stairs in her own camp bed while Marla held her hand.

“I’ll stay with you in the hospital, I swear,” Marla sang into the woodwork. “We’ll live in the same room.”

Little Sister coughed and breathed in great little gasps when they arrived at the bottom of the stairs. “Sis,” she said, shutting her eyes, “see you in my dreams.”

And Marla whispered “Goodnight, goodnight Irene,” while the doctor and the attendant carried Little Sister out the door.

Jerome Charyn is the author of The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson and other novels. His most recent book is Joe DiMaggio: The Long Vigil.
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