“Sister-in-Law” by Louisa Ermelino (from Staten Island Noir)
by Louisa Ermelino
Great Kills, Staten Island (from Staten Island Noir)
Get in the car.
I started to turn but there was a gun in my back or something pretending to be a gun. I faced forward. The voice was familiar, a woman’s voice, a cigarette voice. Philip Morris unfiltered. I think that’s the only way Philip Morris comes. Smoking them was a grand statement, too big for me, but if I was right about the voice then we’d shared a few together, she and I.
Just get in the car. On your left.
She leaned over and opened the door and moved back. I got in. Her husband Joey was driving. He was a small guy and it was a big car. He looked like he was sitting in a hole. It was Buddy’s car, a white Cadillac convertible with rocket fins, but the top was up, black and ominous.
Joey? I said.
Joey stared straight ahead, didn’t even check me out in the rearview mirror. I was disappointed. I thought Joey liked me, but then I was always thinking people liked me when they really didn’t give a shit. I felt better that I was in the backseat with Angela and not in the front with Joey. I knew about the piano wire around the neck, though this was no movie . . .
I actually felt bad. Until just now, Angela had treated me like family.
We were in the Village, on Barrow Street, near the gay club Buddy used to own, before the feds subpoenaed him to testify. He said that was when he learned to sweat and gave up red silk lining in his custom-made suits. Maybe saying the club he used to run was a better way to put it. Only one group of people owned clubs in Greenwich Village, but it was undisclosed ownership. The State Liquor Authority kept close tabs on who got a liquor license.
Why did I know all this? I shouldn’t have. My criminal involvement began and ended with my father’s Prohibition bootlegging days and his stint as a bookkeeper for Tony Bender in the ’30s. Good with numbers and honest, my father wasn’t looking for power and glory, just enough money to start a legitimate business and buy a house. So how did I end up in a white Cadillac with rocket fins and this crazy bitch who was about to become my sister-in-law holding a gun on me?
I asked Angela where we were going. It was a legitimate question, I thought, under the circumstances.
Does it matter? she said.
I shrugged and she pulled my hair.
Staten Island? I said.
Bingo. She laughed.
My brother bragged how you were a college girl, Angela said. Me, I always thought you didn’t have the brains God gave you. Angela really laughed when she said this. Hard to believe we grew up on the same street, she said to me.
I could have mentioned that she was a full ten years older than I was and her father wore overalls to work and gambled his paycheck before he got home Fridays, but her mouth was up close to my ear, her perfume was up my nose, and she was poking that gun hard in my ribs.
I met Buddy in Manhattan but he said he lived out on Staten Island. Right away I knew something was up. He’d grown up in the Village. Staten Island? For me, Staten Island was Middlin’ Beach and my mother’s stories about the rented summer bungalow thirteen blocks from the ocean her first married summer when she was twenty and had a newborn baby (not me). My father took the ferry out every weekend. My mother thought she’d died and went to heaven. Her eight brothers and sisters thought so too, and came out every chance they got. No screens, no plumbing. I don’t remember the amusement park or my cousins making human pyramids on the beach for the camera but there was an old 16 mm movie of me in underpants licking the block of ice that sat on the porch.
What I’m saying is, that for me, Staten Island didn’t conjure images of the high life. It was somewhere you went to if you were on the lam, it seemed that far away; where you went when you owed the wrong people money, the guys with the broken noses, Buddy called them, or when you couldn’t go back to the neighborhood, like Angela, who needed a place to keep her husband straight after he got out of prison. Her mother watched the kids and the old man’s insurance policy, which paid double after he was crushed between the ship and the pier, paid for the house on Florence Street that was a primo fixer-upper. Buddy said that when he came back from California after his marriage broke up, they were sitting on orange crates with candles stuck in cheap wine bottles.
We drove through the Midtown Tunnel and onto the BQE and I could see the Verrazano—for my money, the best thing about Staten Island. We turned left off the bridge and drove down what always felt to me like a country lane. The houses were old, the colors of old houses, green and brown. They had patches of grass in the front. Hylan Boulevard curved and looped before it straightened out and you hit the traffic and the local guidos in muscle cars with music blasting, small strip malls with the same three or four stores, Chinese restaurants that would mix won ton and egg drop soup in one bowl, sandwich shops called Angelo’s and Gino’s, an overstuffed sub painted in primary colors on the plate glass window, bridal shops, catering halls, restaurants named Petruzzi’s with lattice, cognac-colored windows and endless parking. The Staten Islanders loved outdoor parking. They loved parking lots better than garages because in a parking lot everyone could admire your good-looking, expensive car, and you could too.
Hylan Boulevard flooded in a sudden rain; it flooded bad. The semi-attached condos that had been built on the graveyard of grand old houses flooded too, and the cars parked to the sides of the front doors were moved to higher ground with the first sprinkle.
Shut up, she said.
I turned my head and she rammed the gun in my side.
Don’t look at me.
Why? Because I might recognize you?
Funny. You think you’re so funny. Watch me laugh. You know, smarty pants, you should have just stayed where you belonged and away from Buddy. So now just shut your big mouth.
Someone should have warned me when I met Buddy that his family was crazy, but who knew they were this crazy? And let me tell you, when I met Buddy I wasn’t planning on anything long term. All I wanted was a good time. And Buddy was a lot of fun. He knew everybody and had all kinds of connections. We went to after-hours bars and gambling parlors, clubs with private shows in back. We walked past velvet ropes and got the best seats; drinks arrived at the table compliments of the house. There were bear hugs and cheek kisses.
But honestly, did I need a guy who was broke and living with his mother, his two kids, his sister, and a brother-in-law who had five-to-ten in Dannemora under his belt? Living on Staten Island no less? Buddy was pretty quiet about the Staten Island piece and hinted that it wasn’t so bad and maybe we could live out there after we got married. He was awful grateful to Angela for taking him in when the ex-wife grabbed the stash, dumped the kids, and went AWOL with a South American disco dancer named Chico.
We made the turn off the boulevard and onto Florence Street. I was starting to think Angela was really stupid. She kidnaps me at gunpoint and brings me to her house?
When Joey pulled into the driveway, I could see the television flickering with the kids planted in front of it. Angela and Joey had four kids of their own and they all watched television together and made popcorn on Saturday nights. The kind in the aluminum pan that you hold over the stove and the top blows up like a balloon.
Angela handed Joey the gun and he pointed it at my face. That was scary, the idea of taking a bullet to the face. I shut my eyes.
Joey, I said, did you ever shoot anyone?
I thought I told you to shut up, Angela said, which made me open my eyes.
She was digging in her huge black alligator satchel (which for sure had “fallen off a truck,” but who am I to talk?). Before she’d turned nasty, Angela would throw things my way when they came in pairs. Shit, I was wearing an 18 karat gold Rolex that had actually been special order, serial number and everything, from some guy who worked in the factory and swiped a few selectively every month. I was one to talk. Thinking about my watch made me look down at my arm that Angela was trying to duct tape to my other arm. We both zeroed in on the watch at the same time and Angela ripped it off my wrist.
Last year, she said, this would have been mine. Buddy would have bought it for me, so I’ll just take it now.
I saw this as an opportunity and gave her an elbow to the lip and a slap on the side of her head, right on her ear. I had nothing to lose. I had read about serial killers. Once they get you tied up, you’re done for. If only . . . Angela pulled back and punched me so hard that if I’d been a cartoon, the whole strip would have been nothing but stars.
When I opened my eyes again, Angela had taped my wrists and tied me up. The rope was around my neck and connected to my duct-taped wrists, kind of a semi-hog-tie. A disgusting concept. I was hating Angela, not to mention Joey who was waving what I noticed was a very beautiful Beretta in my face. I recognized it as Buddy’s gun. It was a pocket pistol—used, unfortunately. Buddy was going to give it to me—for protection, he said when he showed it to me. The only reason I didn’t have it was that Buddy was waiting for a holster. Buddy liked everything just so.
Angela, I said, this is really stupid. What’s going on? What do you want? For Chrissakes, I’m marrying your brother in six weeks. Take this shit off me!
She looked at her watch—I mean, my watch that seemed now to be hers.
We’ve got a lot of time, she said to Joey. Buddy doesn’t get home for hours.
There she was right. Buddy had two jobs, one at a restaurant and the other at a mob-owned nightclub somewhere in the 70s in Manhattan where the boss had signed a half-dead Judy Garland while she was nodding off on pills. I was supposed to meet him when he got off at four a.m., which was hours and hours away.
Can I put down this goddamn gun, Angela? Joey said. And can we get moving? Would you quit yapping?
Okay, okay. I thought you were ready. You mixed the cement, no?
It’s not just the cement. I gotta move the rocks. They gotta fit. I want it to look nice.
I could feel the blood in the back of my throat; she must have broken my nose, the crazy bitch. I imagined the mouse starting under my eye.
You know we’re in Great Kills, she said to me. Great Kills, get it? You’re gonna be great killed. Angela thought this was hilarious.
I wasn’t feeling so cocky right about then, I have to admit. I thought I was better than Angela. I mean, comparing us was like apples and pears, but if you want to know the truth, while I appreciated her finer qualities, ultimately I did feel she was a creature below.
Angela, talk to me. Let’s figure this thing out, I said.
It’s easy, she said. You’re a smart girl; you figure it out. But let me give you a hint. Buddy’s got everything here. We take care of each other. We’re family. What’s he need you for? What’s he got to go to Manhattan for? You wanna take the kids away from me? I love those kids . . . they call me Mama. They hug me so tight sometimes I can’t breathe.
We can work something out, I told her. Maybe Buddy and I could live here. Maybe find a house nearby . . .
Buddy had hinted at this very plan and I had kiboshed it unequivocally. I’d lived in Rome and Paris and Bombay. I was going to live in Staten Island next to his sister?
Buddy told me he asked and you said no.
I didn’t. I never said no.
Buddy’s a liar?
No, he just doesn’t listen. You know, Angela, how he doesn’t listen. It could be great, all of us together.
She looked at me. I sensed that Joey was feeling bad for me. His hand wasn’t shaking so much anymore. I willed him to put down the gun but he didn’t. He just wasn’t gripping it so tight that his hand shook.
Angela smiled. She was a beautiful girl. Black hair, skin like pearls dipped in milk. The first time I met her, she had on a one-shoulder dress and I swear I wanted to put my tongue against her skin and lick, it was that luscious.
I fell for that once, Angela said, with that other rat bastard. We were like sisters. Then look what I had to do. She took everything anyway, but at least we got the kids. Joey and I took care of her, didn’t we, Joey? But just my luck, we get rid of one son of a bitch and Buddy finds another. He’s a real pain in my ass sometimes, my brother.
Angela, be honest, Buddy’s only here with you because—
She didn’t look so beautiful right now. I shut my mouth. Because he had nowhere else to go, I wanted to say.
Buddy’s mother always said she was sorry she gave up the tenement apartment on Spring Street. She didn’t call it a tenement, though. She called it her “nice apartment.” From Buddy I knew it was three rooms in the back, facing the alley, tub in the kitchen, and everyone waiting in the hallway when one of them took a bath on Saturdays. Tenements weren’t Buddy’s style and neither was Florence Street, from what I could see. There were more trees on Spring Street.
Joey had been “fixing up” the house on Florence Street ever since he’d gotten out. Joey was handy, he had what they called “hands of gold,” which he seemed to use for ripping things out and never putting them back, the bathroom on the second floor, for instance. We’re getting a new bathroom, Angela had told me, but they’d been using the one in the basement for three years while Joey moved on to other projects, such as busting up the stairs so everyone had to walk up a wooden ramp like the cart horses in the stable on Thompson Street.
And then there was Joey’s wall. The first time Buddy took me to Florence Street, Joey was in the front yard mixing cement. There were piles of boulders, different sizes, and Joey was using them to build a wall. The kids were carrying over the smaller ones and Joey was fitting them on top of one another and side by side and cementing them in place. The wall belonged on an English country estate. The wall belonged on meadows and hills and dales. The wall was beautiful and ridiculous. The house was small and ugly and sat on a small and ugly lot, and then all around it, not more than ten feet out, was this magnificent stone wall that each time I visited got higher and higher, until it was starting to look like a rampart. Buddy laughed about it. He called it Joey’s therapy. But I have to be honest, it gave me the creeps.
I’m tired of talking, Angela said to me. Get out of the car.
No, no, Leave her in the car until I’m ready, Joey said.
We can’t leave her in the car. We’ll put her in the basement while you set things up.
The basement? Did you ever carry dead weight up stairs? Joey said. I’m no Hercules and for sure, she ain’t no lightweight.
I let the insult pass. I’m always surprised when people say mean things about me. As I said, I was always thinking people liked me when they really didn’t give a shit. But all that aside, what the hell were they talking about?
I pulled at my wrists, but when I did, the rope tightened around my neck. I was afraid I would pee myself. I thought I’d bring up using the bathroom but I wanted to wait for the right time. Maybe I could get away then, make a noise, maybe I had a chance. The kids would hear, the old lady, deaf as she was, the dog, the neighbors not twenty feet away, someone.
Angela smiled. She can walk, she said. She can walk up the basement stairs. It’ll be dark.
You’re kidding me, Joey said.
I always believed in you, Joey. Even with that crazy wall. I always believed in you. That’s why I stuck, through thick and thin.
I have to go to the bathroom, I said.
You wanna take her? Joey said.
Let her piss herself, Angela told him. She looked me straight in the face. Whatta we care?
Can you guess the rest? Joey put the gun to my temple. Angela duct-taped my mouth. She checked the rope around my wrist and my neck. She pulled me out of the car and down the basement steps. Joey wanted to put out a mat so I could lie down. Angela said no. I’d piss on it, remember I had asked to go to the bathroom? And then she’d have to throw it out and Clorox the place. She’ll be lying down forever, Angela said. Just like the other one.
In the end, they put some blankets on the floor and pushed me down. I could smell dog on the wool but I was glad just to lie there and close my eyes. I heard them leave. I watched the light go away as the sun went down. I heard the scrape of the trowel. I heard one of Buddy’s kids call out to Joey, asking him why he was working on the wall, it was nighttime. I think I slept. And then they were pulling me up. Angela and Joey. And walking me up the stairs.
There was no moon. I wondered what Buddy would think—if he would think that, like his first wife, I had just up and disappeared. Gotten cold feet? Left him at the altar? And the kids . . . would they feel abandoned again? Miss me? I noticed when I got close to the wall how wide it was, wide enough to lie down on. The wall was different heights in different parts. I wondered how high it would go in the end. I realized I would never know.
Angela took my arm and walked me to a place where the wall was low, maybe four feet, and she made me lie down. I felt the stones that jutted through the layer of cement hard against my back, my shoulders, my head, and then she picked up a boulder, so big that it blocked my vision. It would have blocked out the moon if there had been one in the sky, and she brought it down with all her strength.
Buddy came home early the next morning. When he woke up, he took his coffee into the yard where Joey was working on the wall. The kids were rolling stones. They were still in their pajamas.
It’s really coming along, Buddy said. This wall is going to be here after we’re all dead, Joey. It’s like the goddamn Colosseum.
The phone rang and someone inside picked it up. Is that for me? Buddy shouted.
You expecting a call? Joey said.
I thought it might be Ruby. She never showed up last night.
She ever done that before?
No, Buddy said. Never.
LOUISA ERMELINO is the reviews director at Publishers Weekly. She has worked at People, Time, and Instyle, and written three novels: Joey Dee Gets Wise, The Black Madonna, and The Sisters Mallone. Her family summered in Staten Island and it is the home of her husband’s family and “the site of a large part of our courtship.”
Posted: May 9, 2013
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