Monday, June 1, 2020

"The Abduction of Carmela Branca" by Bill Teitelbaum - 2019 Brookyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

The Abduction of Carmela Branca


Bill Teitelbaum

            To discourage loiterers Mr. Nathanson had bolted a steeply inclined lid to the big milk-box in front of his grocery on Ocean Avenue, but Shapiro and I were sitting on it anyway, squatting on our heels with our backs pressed tightly against Mr. Nathanson’s window. The day had been warm but now the temperature was dropping, and though the sycamores had not yet begun to shed in earnest the sidewalks were littered with late-August casualties of the heat. 

            Something had to be done, said Shapiro. Summer was ending, school was beginning. In the circumstances Shapiro felt strongly that loving Frank Branca’s daughter from a passive distance was no longer enough. It wasn’t even love as Shapiro imagined it, while I was convinced that Shapiro’s imagination would get us killed. Imagination was supposed to protect us when it wasn’t tempting us playfully to peril, to provide us sanctuary, but Shapiro laughed and described a positive jauntiness of expression. Folded arms, a hoisted jaw, a private smile delirious with cunning—Tom Sawyer wasn’t enough for Shapiro, he had to be Robin Hood.
            “Shapiro, would you listen to me?”
            “No. My mind is firm. Just tell me if you’ll help me.”
            “Why don’t you ask Cooperman,” I said.
            “He’s scared to death,” Shapiro laughed.
            “Everyone is scared except you, Shapiro. What does Carmela say,” I asked, but Shapiro avoided the question.
            “I don’t know if she appreciates how I feel about her,” he said.
            “You make me feel crazy, Shapiro. How can I talk to you?”

            Shapiro’s plan was to intercept Carmela Branca on her way home from roller skating. Every Saturday Carmela met her cousin Bonnie at the Empire Rollerdrome near the riding academy on Prospect Park Circle. Shapiro would wait for her outside the rink in a taxi and take her to his house.
            “And that’s your plan?” I said, “Shapiro, she doesn’t even like you.”
            “You don’t know that. How could you know that,” Shapiro asked.
            “Shapiro, be reasonable,” I said. It wasn’t romantic—it wasn’t anything. He didn’t even go to school with her. He would just frighten her, that’s all he would do, he would frighten and insult her, and then her father, Mr. Francantonio Branca, a brooding imminence in our lives who seemed to comb his hair straight back from his eyelids, would beat us to death with one of those fishclubs like they use on party boats. 

            “Will you help me or not?” Shapiro said.
            “Sure,” I said. “Why not?”
            The plot seemed hare-brained enough. All she had to do was tell Shapiro what he could do with his taxi. But Carmela went everywhere by taxi. She sat back comfortably with her skatebox across her lap and looked out the window. The skatebox was covered in aqua vinyl and had a white vinyl kitty laminated to the lid.
            “I have to go home now,” Carmela said. “I have to have milk and cake.”
            Shapiro glanced at me in a superior way, then sat back and gave the driver his address on Dorchester. As far as Shapiro was concerned everything was going splendidly, and with the intervention of Mr. Branca I would never see medical school. We had just passed his storefront on Caton Avenue where, if you were naive enough to believe the signage, he sold insurance and real estate.
            “Insurance,” Shapiro smirked, rolling his eyes around.
            Still, I had to admire Shapiro. He had nerve where all I had was intelligence, which was useful, I suppose, but not interesting.
            Well, I thought, as the streets went by, soon we would be dead.
            Yet this certainty comforted me in some terrible way. I half-listened to Shapiro struggling to make conversation with Carmela, but an absorbing combination of nausea and indifference seemed to gather me in its arms. 
            “Where did Bonnie go? I didn’t see her,” Shapiro said. He was sitting in the middle. Carmela was behind the driver.
            “She didn’t show up,” Carmela said hotly, very put out. She had had to skate by herself all afternoon.
            “Maybe you can go skating with me next Saturday,” Shapiro said.
            Carmela frowned grimly at Shapiro, but then hugged her skatebox and pouted out the window. “It would serve her right,” she said.
            But now Shapiro, too, was frowning grimly. You would have thought everything had been going so well.
            The cab by then had stopped in front of Shapiro’s house and while Shapiro paid the driver I led Carmela to the family room in Shapiro’s basement. She was in the little toilet behind the laundry sink when Shapiro came down the stairs, bitterly counting his change from the taxi. You could see he was falling out of love fast with this girl.
            “Did you know she was like this? Why didn’t you tell me? She doesn’t make any sense.”
            I looked at Shapiro but speech failed me.
            “We have to take her home,” Shapiro decided. “I don’t like this.”
            Carmela came out of the washroom then. She had washed her hands and now she wanted her milk and cake.
            “Stay here,”Shapiro told her.
            “Where is he going,” Carmela asked.
            “He’s getting you milk and cake,” I said.
            She smiled and sat down on the sofa in front of the coffee table.
            “Are there Ring-Dings,” Carmela asked.
            There were some brownies and a wedge of coffee ring, and then it was time to go.             “My father’s going to kill me,” Carmela said. She seemed pleased though. She picked up her empty glass and plate and offered them to Shapiro.
            “Could you leave it?” Shapiro asked. “Please,” he said, “just leave it there.”
            Carmela’s house was only two blocks from Shapiro’s, a three-story Dutch colonial on Marlboro near the Ditmas Avenue corner, but it was dark by the time we got there, tall carriage lamps were lit at both ends of the veranda, and Mr. Branca’s big Chrysler was parked in the driveway.
            Without hesitation Carmela sounded the doorbell, and almost immediately a shadow fell across the vestibule.
            “Hey Carmela,” Mr. Branca yelled at her. 

            All of us watched as she ran up the hall stairs and then Francantonio Branca filled the doorway with his forearms, a highball glass dangling at his elbow. He was wearing gray sharkskin trousers with translucent black socks, his starched white shirt was unbuttoned, his silvery necktie, untied, was draped behind his collar, and his face, freshly shaved, had the blue-black sheen of a pressing iron.

            We amused him, I think. You know how thugs are. He was being droll. Rattling his ice cubes, that pretended aversion to violence.        
            “You have a lovely home,” Shapiro said.
            Let me admit it, I was probably too high-strung for these moments. I was interested in excitement but I didn’t really like it.
            “You know what time it is?” Mr. Branca said.
            Shapiro shrugged. No doubt his idea of an apology.
            Mr. Branca was pointing at the front parlor. “You, too,” he said, and I had to follow Shapiro. “Inside there,” Mr. Branca said.

            It was like a catering hall, everything was upholstered in gold-threaded white brocade, and above the mantel a photographic montage illuminated by a little lamp commemorated Carmela Branca’s first communion. Dreamily vignetted profiles of Mr. and Mrs. Branca at the lower corners gazed lovingly upward toward Carmela hovering in her own penumbra. She was holding her catechism and a little nosegay of white flowers and seemed to be waiting patiently for someone to serve her milk and cake. 

            “So what’s the story here, you like my kid? What’s the matter with you?” Mr. Branca said. He looked at Shapiro very seriously, then he sighed at me, and then he looked at Shapiro again.
            Okay fine, I said to myself, here it comes.
            “Frank, we’re gonna be late,” Mrs. Branca said. She was calling down to him from the second floor.

            Mr. Branca was refilling his highball glass from a little drink trolley. “Some bullshit, right? Like you might miss something in this fucking life. Twelve years old, the kid needs a babysitter. I gotta go pick her up, take her home...” 

            I watched Shapiro nodding his head sympathetically, as if men of adventure had their own language. Maybe later, I thought, he would explain it to me. 

            “Like you never realize,” Mr. Branca said. “You’re thinking what, like you’ll catch a break?”
            Mrs. Branca blew in then. Now that was scary. Her eyebrows moved like scissors when she talked. You could hear her all the way down the stairs. Thin, with big hair, electric in a nylon makeup wrapper, “You have to go get the sitter now, Frank, we’ll be late already.”

            Mr. Branca shrugged helplessly at us. “It’s her sister’s engagement party. Every time she gets laid there’s a party.” He opened the door to the vestibule and a few minutes later we were walking down Ditmas Avenue to the kiosk at the Brighton station so Shapiro could get a newspaper.

            “Well, I thought that was pretty good,” Shapiro was saying. “Did you see her mother? That was weird. I never saw anything like that before.”
            I said, “Shapiro, do you know how lucky we are?”
            It was as if nothing connected, as if each of us pursued some exclusive urgency, yet here was Shapiro trying to tell me what a good time we’d just had. 

            Well, at least that much made sense. I could hardly wait for the slept-on version.
            And then soon I would grow up, I assured myself, and everything would get bent into square. That’s what maturity was, I imagined, a kind of prism of the mind. All of us occupied a common earth— you just had to look at things right, with your head turned somehow.

            “Hey, look at this,” Shapiro said, sliding the newspaper into my face.
            Ever since the Russians put a satellite in orbit Shapiro had been trying to interest me in space travel.

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