Publication Date: November 6, 2018
Lake Union Publishing
Paperback, eBook & Audio
Genre: Historical Fiction
In turn-of-the century New York, a mobster rises—and his favorite sister struggles between loyalty and life itself. How far will she go when he commits murder? After midnight, Thelma Lorber enters her brother Abie’s hangout under the Williamsburg Bridge, finding Jewish mobster Louis “Pretty” Amberg in a puddle of blood on the kitchen floor. She could flee. Instead, in the dark hours of that October 1935 night before the dawn of Murder, Inc., she remains beside the fierce, funny brother who has nurtured and protected her since childhood. There are many kinds of love a woman can feel for a man, but few compare to that of the baby sister for her older brother. For Thelma, a wild widow tethered to a young son, Abie is the center of her world. But that love is about to undo everything she holds dear… Flipping the familiar script of The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, and The Godfather, Bittersweet Brooklyn explores the shattering impact of mob violence on the women expected to mop up the mess. Winding its way over decades, this haunting family saga plunges readers into a dangerous past—revealed through the perspective of a forgotten yet vibrant woman.
Note: In this chapter, 13-year-old Thelma is spending time in the Italian part of the neighborhood with her friend Nina to avoid the tension at home following an incident with her stepfather, Moe. For point of reference, her siblings are Annie, Abie and Louis.
For safety, Thelma gravitated toward the nearby homes of her Italian girlfriends, where adding another bowl was no problem if a clean spoon could be found or pulled from the maw of a teething baby. Chairs could easily be shared. There was so much activity in those fertile households that she could just be one mouth among many and not the lightning rod she was at home.
Her favorite kitchen was in Nina Gigantiello’s apartment overlooking Our Lady of Mount Carmel on North Eighth Street, a full floor of a four-story building above the Knights of Columbus. Shy and olive skinned, Nina had short legs and short arms and a basset hound’s mournful brown eyes, blinking her stubby lashes frequently in a constant battle against ash and pollen. She was a superior student but would often finish only two-thirds of a math test so as not to stand out and inspire the wrath of neighborhood curs ashamed by their own limitations. When Nina became the first girl in the class to get breasts—a large shelf on her slight frame that got in her way when she leaned over and tried to tie her tattered laces—she unbalanced the equation of girls and boys in the class.
The Gigantiellos, like most of their immediate neighbors, were deeply Catholic and, like so many of their countrymen, they sinned and repented, sinned and repented, with much drama followed by heavy meals. Crosses hung everywhere—above the beds, nestled in a sideboard altar, even between Mrs. Gigantiello’s breasts. Was the cross a warning for men to stay away, or an invitation to look closer? Thelma didn’t know. Over time, she became accustomed to the crucifixes and even the way that Nina’s mother was constantly crossing herself and raising her eyes toward the water-stained ceiling, as if their Lord would answer conversationally on cue like a nosy neighbor.
With a smile that could melt mozzarella and a single gold front tooth adorning the white, Mrs. Allegra Gigantiello was a woman of big laughs and loud sighs. She flowed through the house carrying a large wooden spoon, which she would cover with a cloth to sweep out a spider at the corner of the ceiling or thump on the close-shaved head of a child who stole the baby’s animal cracker. She took an immediate liking to Thelma, whom she called stuzzicadenti, which meant toothpick. At Mrs. G’s table, the skinny girl found her appetite, eating anything put in front of her: pasta bolognese, eggplant parmigiana, and pasta e fagioli. She did the unthinkable: fell in love with sautéed spinach with garlic and baby peas, when before she had never met a vegetable she liked. She discovered she was Jewish by birth but had an Italian palate.
As Nina’s blond, bullet-headed little brother—they called him Giorgio Porgio—buzzed around her, teasing the guest while avoiding his mother’s wooden spoon of justice, Thelma always finished the meal by clasping Mama Allegra in gratitude. Mrs. Gigantiello would pull her tight into the smell of musky sweat and spice and rose water—nose to nose with the cross—and compliment the child for giving meaty hugs despite such slender arms.
“She’s a good hugger, this stuzzicadenti,” Mama Allegra had said, scratching the girl’s scalp. Melting into Nina’s mother, Thelma hoped that, someday, she could become this kind of mother, nurturing and wise. Praise seemed to come as easily as sweat to Mama Allegra, and the Italian woman’s embraces would inspire more affection from Thelma as Nina looked on, increasingly withdrawn.
Giving her friend the evil eye, Nina would ask Thelma, “What’s the big deal about Mama?”
“Everything,” Thelma replied. Just as she’d never tasted rapini before, so she’d never felt the warmth of uncritical maternal love. It was heavenly, more filling than pasta and more nourishing than vegetables.
After dinner, Nina would drag Thelma away to join her sisters on the fire escape to try to catch a breeze, gorging on stone fruit and spitting the pits on unsuspecting passersby entering the Knights of Columbus. The older daughters claimed this artillery practice strengthened the kisser—they could tie knots in cherry stems with their tongues—but that exercise was less important to Thelma and Nina than eliciting a big upraised fist and curses in Italian from the gold-chained men, their crosses nested in chest fur.
Once darkness fell, Thelma would linger, waiting for an invitation to spend the night, and then join the long line to the bathroom, having the backs of her ears scrubbed hard by one older sister or another, Trulia or Gabriela. She was accepted like a puppy among piglets, without asking permission. And she found that on North Eighth Street, the gears of her mind stopped grinding. For those hours she didn’t wait for the next shoe to drop. She floated in the world of children.
In the dining room, the girls would set up the kitchen chairs in two rows, with the youngest in front, including Thelma and Nina. Then Mama would take the boar-bristle brush to Thelma’s knots, praising her curls and their reddish-brown glow, smoothing them with olive oil, the movement of her sure fingers a tonic and salve so that the chore that Thelma hated the most at home became a luxurious pleasure. As Mama Allegra spun her wild locks into well-behaved braids, one on each side of her head, Thelma’s shoulders dropped, her hands folded into her lap, and she lost the thread of the parish gossip, which Trulia called Our Lady of Perpetual Hullabaloo.
Then they would turn to Mama, unfurling the intricate braid created the night before. She would sigh with pleasure as Nina and Thelma combed through the thick straight hair with silver strands mixing with the blackish-brown. For a moment, the mother appeared girlish, her hair full and floating over her shoulders and down her back, framing a gently smiling face happy to see a night’s rest after a day of labor. Then the younger girls stepped aside, making way for Gabriela to weave her spider magic on her mother’s hair, slowly and deliberately knitting the strands back up into their captive, civilized state.
It was on one of these July nights a week before the Giglio feast that Mama Allegra sat behind Thelma, untangling the knots in her hair, twirling curls around her fingers and proclaiming her jealousy. Then, after shooing Giorgio away like a pesky fly from beneath Thelma’s knees, which he was trying to tickle with a chicken feather, she asked the question that cut deepest: “You are a treasure, stuzzicadenti, so why doesn’t your family treasure you?”
The question sucked Thelma’s breath away. It was so direct and simple, and yet she couldn’t answer. Why didn’t they? A tougher girl would have said ask them. But she was not that callused girl. She picked at the scabs of herself, wondering how she had erred from the beginning. Why was she worth less than her sister, and now her niece and nephew? Why were Mama and Annie so close, knitted together by a fierce love, while she remained on the outside looking in? Their rejection ripped through her. She was not affectionate; she was needy. Her legs weren’t magic; they were skinny. She didn’t dance for joy but demanded attention.
She didn’t fit, didn’t do as she was told, didn’t submit, didn’t keep the right secrets and tell the right lies. If only she spurned Abie and Louis. If only she did these things, she would be loved—but there was always something else that was not good enough, never good enough. It wasn’t fair and she angrily searched inside herself for more flaws to justify their criticisms. And, searching, she found them: a dirty mouth, a lazy ass, a husband thief.
How could she begin to discuss her stepfather when she didn’t even know how to explain it to herself? Silence spread through the room as the Gigantiellos awaited Thelma’s answer. Trulia and Gabriela leaned in. In the expectant quiet, they heard a tenor practicing his solo for the feast. Then came the frazzled response of the brass, followed by the singer excoriating the musicians for entering too late and at the wrong tempo. The song began again and Thelma looked at Nina, who knew her secrets and nodded, saying, “Tell Mama.”
“Tell me, bambina,” said Mama Allegra. “What could you possibly do that would be so terrible?”
Shaking her head, Thelma said, “But it was.”
“I look at you and I don’t believe it. Not my sweet stuzzicadenti. Did you drown a baby? Set fire to a cat? Rob a bank?”
“No.” But there were other crimes. “Uncle Moe.”
“Who is this Uncle Moe, Nina?”
Nina looked to Thelma, who nodded permission. “The stepfather.”
“Ah, stepfathers, patrigni,” said her mother. “There’s a special place in hell for them.”
“He’s a good man,” Thelma protested, squeezing her hands between her thighs. “He was kind to me. And then this . . .”
“This what?” asked Mama Allegra. “Gabriela, get me a hankie. What did this man do to you?”
“He did nothing to me, Mama Allegra. This thing at night we did, me and him, on the sofa when everybody else was asleep. That thing was my fault.” She crumpled in her chair, feeling the pressure to confess but not the words to explain: she lay with her stepfather, the shonda. She’d opened her legs to him and shut all rights to be part of the family. She was guilty of this crime—the husband thief.
Her remorse mixed with loneliness. She missed the nights, the attention, and the secrecy. It angered her that she’d risked everything for his embrace and, then, like Mama, like Annie, he’d deserted her. His promises dissolved like sugar in water.
She looked at Nina’s mother and recognized kindness with such clarity that she blushed. She feared that if she revealed what had happened, it would be the end to pasta, hair braiding, hugs. Nina’s mother would reject her. The Gigantiellos would no longer welcome her if she confessed, but, with their encouragement, she couldn’t hold back. It was too much to carry alone. She said, “Uncle Moe, my stepfather, at night, we did stuff.”
“Stuff, bambina, what is stuff?”
Thelma paused, her mouth open, trying to form the words plucked from the confusing images in her head.
Nina said, “What a husband does with his wife.”
“Oh, that never happens in Jewish households!” the matriarch said ironically, laughing in a way that made Thelma cry in relief. She pulled the girl in close with a hug and a kiss, saying, “As if you were the only little girl subject to a lecher under her own roof.”
“It was my fault,” Thelma said.
“How could it be? You are a child.”
“Children don’t behave that way with men. I am a woman.”
“No,” Mama Allegra said in a stern voice. “You’re not. He’s the adult, bambina. He wore the wedding ring and took the vows. He ate your mother’s cooking and shared her bed. He should have known better, but men are men, unscrupulous, stealing fruit from others’ trees and convincing themselves it’s theirs.”
“He didn’t force me. I was willing.”
“You were vulnerable. He pounced. Have you seen your long legs, your green eyes? No wonder he couldn’t keep his hands off you. In the old country, a girl your age would already be married to keep you safe from the uncles under your roof. Your mother and sister should have protected you from him. Don’t blame yourself, stuzzicadenti. We’ll guard you.”
Giorgio leaped to Thelma’s side and saluted, grabbing a broom like a bayonet. The youngest son was always in motion, kicking a can, making a slingshot, bouncing like a rabbit on the sisters’ beds and crying, “I’m going to the moon.” The crack that had formed on the ceiling showed how far he’d gotten.
The blue-eyed beauty of a boy, far prettier than Nina, Gabriela, or Trulia, appeared to take his duty even more seriously than expected, as if he were in the army and Thelma was his captive. A year younger and a head shorter than her, he remained beside her for the rest of the summer like a warrior cherub, despite Nina trying to shoo the pest away from her friend. Thelma, having never experienced this level of attention, found his devotion both cloying and pleasing. She was no longer the one who tagged along. He was. And so he pushed her farther into the group, tormenting and tickling and bringing her strange presents: a bottle opener, a purple ribbon, a linen handkerchief with a blue windmill and the initials K. J. on it.
During that summer, Thelma became a shadow daughter of the Gigantiellos’. Occasionally she’d slip in and out of the house on Hooper Street, trying to avoid conflict, dodging Annie’s gibes that she was spending too much time with the Italians. She’d hoped that if she lay low, relations would stabilize between Mama and Moe, and the husband would return to Mama’s bed where he belonged. But she had no such luck, and spending the night still meant sharing Mama’s bed, a waking nightmare of belches and sniffles and a pervasive sense of unwelcome and unease that followed Thelma into her dreams, where her shoulders ached from the weight of bending low.
In the week leading up to the feast, Allegra, her mother, and her sisters cooked and competed, letting the girls and their cousins taste the sauces, the panna cotta. Thelma praised Mama Allegra’s cooking, which pleased the older woman, teasing a smile that revealed her gold tooth, which the woman normally tried to conceal. Her own children agreed that Grandma’s was superior, followed by Auntie Bettina’s. Thelma remained loyal. She did little things to please—bringing Allegra glasses of water as she cooked, finding a misplaced spice or stepping on a stool to pull a stray hair from the woman’s mouth.
“Stop it,” Nina would say. “You look at her like she’s the Madonna. Don’t be confused. She’s not. She’s only my mama.”
“That’s plenty for me,” said Thelma, not recognizing the difference and disregarding the warning.
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