Read an Excerpt
The Little Brothers
By Dorothy Salisbury Davis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1973 Dorothy Salisbury Davis
All rights reserved.
THE LITTLE BROTHERS WERE ruled by a code. Not only did they try to live by it themselves, they tried to make others live by it as well. It was based on pride and purity, and its purpose was to protect their own. It was made up out of the folklore of Sicily and the imagination of the members. The club was the most exclusive in a neighborhood where virtually every male, man or boy, belonged to a club of some sort. The Little Brothers' rites were secret and their works charitable and patriotic. Most families were proud to say that a son of the house was a Little Brother.
Candidates were nominated by members, selected by lot, and then only when a circumstance in the community provided what was called "the ordeal" by which a boy could prove his worthiness. There were never more than twenty active members at a time, and so far no one who had outgrown the club was known to have violated its oath of lifetime secrecy.
Angie Palermo was not even sure he wanted to be a Little Brother. At sixteen, he was a loner, a dreamer. His mother kept pushing him from her and pulling him to her. Most of the time he hated her. He hated Mr. Rotelli, her boyfriend, even more. Angie had a friend he also hated, mostly because he was afraid of him, and when "Fat Ric" said he was putting Angie up for the Little Brothers, Angie was afraid to say he didn't want to be one. Since his name was not likely to come up for some time, Angie tried to forget about it although once in a while he fantasied himself a leader among the Little Brothers, who took an honored part that year in the organization of Italian American Day.
It was a hot summer in New York, and Mr. Rotelli was around the house most of the time. Angie found a rooftop hideout for himself. He found it because of a girl he thought the most beautiful person he had ever seen: she was blond and tall and graceful, not at all like the girls he knew. He sometimes watched for her to go into Allioto's Delicatessen on Hester Street, and then followed her home, keeping at a distance so that she would not see him. Having grown up on the streets of Little Italy, he knew many hiding places. He knew the tenements well enough to try the trap door to the roof opposite the building where she lived. It gave him no trouble and, after he had gone up there a few times, he got into the habit of pulling the fire ladder up after him. Gradually he provisioned himself—several tins of anchovies, olives, peanuts, a couple of books; he devised a makeshift tent which he sometimes pretended was a boat on a shimmering sea, and in the heat the tarpaper often bubbled up like black water. Sometimes he saw the girl when she came to the window and tended the plants she kept on the fire escape. She lived on the top floor.
Angie was a watcher: of stars, of birds, of planes, of people. He liked people as long as they didn't try to smother him. And yet he wanted to be smothered. Sometimes. He liked it that people liked him: he knew it was so because he had overheard an old woman of the neighborhood say he was the nicest boy on Elizabeth Street.
He was a watcher, which made "the ordeal," when it was explained to him, seem more romantic than anything he had supposed could come of initiation into the Little Brothers.
Ric had left a phone message with his mother, and to make sure Angie found out he was wanted by the Little Brothers at eight o'clock that night, Ric also left word with Mrs. Niccoli who sat on a chair outside his building most of the day and well into the night.
Angie needed all his courage to walk into the basement clubroom where the five members of the council waited at the round poker table. The boys did not play poker. They had salvaged the table because there was a gash in it. Ric introduced him which wasn't necessary. Angie knew them all and they knew him, Tony from school, the others from around the neighborhood: Pete the Turk, a wiry youngster so-called because of his round head; Gabby from Gabriel, not because he talked so much; Ric; and Rig Louis, their captain and the oldest. He was scheduled to go to college in the fall. Ric wanted to be made captain when Louis left. He had told that to Angie; he told everything to Angie and made him listen. He didn't make Big Louis listen. He started to say something and Louis said, "Shut up, Bonelli."
Angie was required to take a blood oath of secrecy. He was given a small sharp knife with which to draw blood from his own thumb. When he managed on the third jab, each of the council drew his own blood in turn. Angie muttered the words "blood bank," in his nervousness needing to make a joke and afraid to make it. If anyone heard there was no sign. Louis squeezed a drop of blood in a saucer, and motioned Angie to do the same. The others followed in the order Louis named them. Ric was last, and it crossed Angie's mind that Ric wasn't ever going to be their captain. That thought reassured him until he realized that Ric's being the last made a symbolic circle which closed Angie in.
Louis recited the credo of the Little Brothers as solemnly as he sometimes read the lector's prayers at Mass. It concerned service to God, family, community, and country, loyalty to one another, and obedience to the code. Angie had pretty well known these precepts from Ric, and he would have guessed that the Little Brothers disapproved of drunkenness and drugs. A notable omission was reference to sex, except that he supposed it was covered in the "protection of one another's sisters."
Angie swore another oath, this one of loyalty. Ric took away the saucer and washed it with spit and kleenex.
The folding chair creaked under Louis as he leaned back and took his wallet from his pocket. He was a big, broad-shouldered youth. He became comradely with Angie as he took a newspaper clipping from the wallet and gave it to the novice to read. Four lines in length, it did not have a heading:
Wong Lee, proprietor of the Yellow Chrysanthemum on Mott Street, died of suffocation last night when a fishbone lodged in his windpipe while he was eating dinner at his own restaurant.
Louis said, "You know who he was, don't you?"
"I heard of him. He owned a building where somebody I know used to live."
"It was two or three years ago," Angie said. All he could remember was his mother saying that the Chinaman had it coming to him.
"I put the Killing Eye on him a week before it happened."
Angie didn't say anything. The Brothers had him fixed with their eyes. He felt like a roach on a pin. Louis and the others waited in silence for him to gather the implications for himself. He tried to keep his fingers from trembling as he gave the clipping back.
"It hasn't worked as strong for all the Brothers," Louis said, "but something pretty awful's happened to everybody a Brother put the Eye on."
More silence until Angie asked, "How does it work?"
"You'll find out while you're doing it."
"To just anybody?"
Louis shot a glance at Ric that blamed him for Angie's stupidity. "You wouldn't be here, Angie, if we didn't have a candidate that deserves the Killing Eye. Do you know the religious articles shop on Hester Street?"
"Next to Allioto's deli?" Louis nodded. Angie had seen the girl he so admired stop there a couple of times on her way to or from the delicatessen. He had wondered why, but he had not given it much thought. She never stayed very long.
"It's run by a Jew named Grossman. He's your target."
"But you got to tell me what he's done," Angie said.
"No. You're going to tell us when it's over. Then we'll know if you're really one of us. You got a week, midnight tonight till midnight. You'll scout the place and watch him. Who knows, maybe you'll find a way to scare him to death yourself. You'll wish him dead, and take a Little Brother's word for it, when you get to know him, you'll mean it. Pick a weapon. Concentrate. You got imagination. But just remember: you're on your own and you're sworn to secrecy. Under pain ... of what?"
"The Killing Eye."
"On you," Louis added. It wasn't necessary.
Angie walked in a daze for a little while after he left the clubroom, his thoughts tripping over one another. He had not had a chance to say whether or not he wanted to take those oaths. It was taken for granted that everyone wanted to be a Little Brother. Pick a weapon: he was going to have to pretend he was after someone he knew, just to get the whole thing going. Fat Ric came to mind at once. At the moment, he couldn't even remember what Mr. Grossman looked like. He put his thumb with the cut to his mouth, sucked it and spat. He decided that he should have a knife. He had always wanted a hunting knife. He had enough money saved and he decided to buy one the next day. Then he walked to Hester Street.
As soon as he saw the shop he realized that he knew more about its proprietor than he had thought. The window was clouded with dust. So were the many-colored statuettes of saints on display. Off to the corner was a collection of long-faced saints, icons. There was a Ukrainian Orthodox church on the corner. It seemed queer that a Jew would run such a shop in Little Italy. He remembered having seen the old man come out one night and lock the door. He'd had to open it again to let the cat out. The cat shot past its master, and then, a minute later, darted past him again, as Mr. Grossman went up the stairs between his shop and the delicatessen.
There was not much light in the shop, but there was some. Angie could not see Mr. Grossman, but a tall, heavy-shouldered black man stood at the counter, his back to the door. There was a little motion to his arms which Angie tried to figure out: he decided the man might be counting out money. The black man cocked his head and before he could turn Angie moved along the street. It was almost dark. The street lights had come on. Angie went to the end of the block, crossed the street, and came back on the other side. He could hear the kids playing on the side streets, but Hester Street was almost deserted. He wished there were more people. He ducked down behind a parked car. From overhead came the whispery flutter of the red, white, and green pennants strung across the street. Through the pennants, he could see a woman walking back and forth with a baby in her arms on the third floor over Grossman's.
The black man came out of the shop carrying a package the size of a shoebox. He walked swiftly down the street to the vacant lot where the boys sometimes played stickball against the side of the building. A car door slammed, a motor revved up, and a shiny black car shot out over the curb, the wheels screaming as it turned and sped toward the Bowery.
Angie returned to the shop window. Grossman was making a small oblong packet out of newspaper around which he put a rubber band. The boy was sure it was money. The cat was watching, sitting on the counter. It put a paw to the package and the old man gave it a swat that knocked it off the counter. When Grossman sat down at a desk at the back, only the back of his head in sight, Angie went away. He felt a shiver down his back. It was not yet midnight. He did not have to start thinking about the Killing Eye till then, but he already hated Grossman for the way he treated the cat.
During the week that followed, Angie collected several observations that confirmed the evil of Ben Grossman. He saw a policeman getting a pay-off in a white envelope into which Angie had seen Grossman putting money. The old man didn't sell a single statue in the times when Angie was watching. Once he dusted the saints in the window, most of whom Angie had by then identified, St. Anthony, St. Francis, The Little Flower, several Virgin Marys. Dusting one of them, Grossman had spat on her. On the third day, Angie grew bold enough to make his presence known to the shopkeeper. He brought an old sock from home and wiped a six-inch square in the dirty window at his own eye level. From then on he periodically stared in at the old man through the clean place. It could not have been the first time Grossman was annoyed by the youth of the neighborhood: most of the time he ignored Angie although he muttered a lot to himself. Once in a while he shook his fist at the boy. Otherwise, he kept his eyes on the newspaper which was always spread out before him on the counter. He sat on a high, backless stool.
Angie explored the hallway where Grossman went up and down to his second-floor apartment or to the hall bathroom. Grossman did not bother to lock the shop when he went up on short excursions. Only once did Angie see the woman outside the third-floor apartment: there was apparently only the one toilet in the building. Her husband, a tall dark-browed Sicilian, did the shopping when he came home from work. Angie drew swastikas along the hallway walls with colored markers. He was not sure what they meant, only that it was the worst thing you could do to a Jew. Nor was his artwork very good. He had a hard time getting the correct angles on the symbol. Maybe once or twice a day, somebody would go into the shop and buy a religious medal or a holy picture—never a painted expensive one. Otherwise, there was nobody except the old man and his cat, until the evening the black man came again.
Angie was sitting in the entryway to the leather goods factory across the street. The factory was closed for the month of August. When the black man went in the shop Angie gave him a minute and then crossed the street and looked in through his clean spot in the glass. Grossman poked his head around. He saw Angie and said something. The black man whirled around: Angie saw only the beginning of the movement. He skittered along to the hallway and hid himself behind the door which always stood open. But the black man came and pulled Angie out from behind the door. He lifted him from the floor like Grossman might his cat. He had a gold tooth and a scar on his upper lip. He said into Angie's face: "Little fascist kid, you want your throat cut?"
Angie, with a knife sheathed in his own belt, said "No."
"Then get out of here and don't ever come back. Hear?"
He hurled Angie into the street, the boy kicking to get his feet on the ground. As soon as he got them under him, he ran and kept running. But he circled the block as far as the far side of the lot which he had reconnoitered after the first time he had seen the black man. He waited in the shadow of the building, safe on the other side of a high cyclone fence, and watched the black limousine until the man came, again carrying a package. Again he drove off in a fury of noise and dust. Angie felt sure there was one of the statues in the package, and he figured that inside the statue there had to be horse. Heroin.
Angie could not watch Grossman night and day, but it was safe to say he thought about him most of the time. He wished him many deaths, but he wished him dead most fiercely for the way he treated his cat, giving it food one minute, kicking it, whacking it the next. The one good thing that happened to Angie owing to "the ordeal" was that not once during the week had Ric Bonelli come near him, not at home or on the street.
On the last day, Angie did not get to Grossman's until late. There was word about that a film company shooting on location on Grand Street was hiring people for a crowd scene. Angie was hired. His was one of the faces in a group of people who were supposed to be watching a plane when it exploded in the sky. More than most things, he wanted to be an actor. His face ached when he got through from screwing it up in horror. He hoped the director would "discover" him, but an assistant paid him ten dollars and had him sign a release. When he was leaving, he saw the girl who lived opposite his hideout. She got out of a station-wagon in costume. She was an actress. Angie would have postponed his watch of Grossman a little longer, except that she went into a warehouse for "interior shooting." But seeing her weakened his concentration on Mr. Grossman. For the rest of the day he kept fantasying himself playing her lover. He wished to God he would grow a little taller, suddenly, miraculously. His mother had assured him he was all through growing at fifteen but he had managed another inch in the last year in spite of her. The evening dragged on until finally at eleven he took up his place at the shop window. It was crazy that Grossman should still be open at that hour, but he always was. He sat at the counter, his sour, crinkled face in his hands, his elbows on the newspaper.
Excerpted from The Little Brothers by Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Copyright © 1973 Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.