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Authors: Jerome Charyn

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BOOK: Bitter Bronx
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Lord Lekë was responsible for the welfare of every single Albanian in the Bronx. Daughters could not be married without his consent. Old men would come to him at any hour in fits of depression. Their lord would heal them with a bear hug and a hot glass of tea. He would appear at births and deaths, but he himself had fathered no one, did not have a child. And that is why his minions were so curious about the woman next to his cowboy boots. Was their
in love?

She bowed to him. “You must not harm my fiancé. How has he wronged you?”

“He exists,” said Lord Lekë. “That is enough of a wound. He blocks my avenue, mamzelle.”

“And what avenue could that be?” Angela asked like a counselor-at-law.

“My avenue from me to you.”

But she outsmarted this Bronx mountain bandit. She meant to murder him in front of all his minions—with a cat lady's kiss.

“You are mistaken, my lord. He hasn't blocked this avenue at all. Haven't I come to your club?”

“To plead for his life.”

“Not at all,” she said, and she could feel her whiskers growing. “Would my lord care for a kiss?”

But she didn't understand Bronx mountain lore. No woman, descended from the Dukagjinis or not, could demand a kiss from Lord Lekë, the
of the Bronx. It was Lekë's right to appear in a woman's bedroom and ravish her, even with a husband at her side—it brought luck and long life to copulate with their lord, and husbands often delivered their own wives to Lord Lekë, but he wouldn't ravish them. He kissed them on the forehead and sent them home.

The lord's minions surrounded Angela with a menacing air. Lekë rose off his pillow to rant at them.

“Brothers, you will insult your king if you hurt this lady. She is a Latina. She does not understand our ways. . . . You must escort her home.”

He collapsed onto his pillow and closed his eyes. Meanwhile, a horde of men and women accompanied her to Arthur Avenue like some miraculous honor guard.

She couldn't even find her balding knight. He vanished from St. Barnabas, left a note and a thousand dollars in crisp new bills.

Angela, I have a very small future here.

Your loving friend, Robertson

She wouldn't return to that madcap social club with all its riddles. She waited until Lord Lekë appeared at Dominick's with his clan. And while he sampled the pasta dishes with a look of utter ravishment, she went up to him and tossed the thousand dollars into his eyes. The rapture was gone, but he would allow none of his minions to rise from the table.

“What is my crime, Miss Angela?”

“You sent my man away and had him throw silver into my eyes—a thousand dollars.”

“I did no such thing,” said this lord of the Albanians. “I invited your fiancé to leave. I paid him, yes, but it wasn't blood money or a bribe. And it was much, much more than a thousand. He swindled you, I think. Mine was an honest proposal. I could break his leg or he could have a monthly stipend from me. He took the stipend. Sit down. Join us at the table, and my men will worship you forever. You'll be our queen.”

Angela was trembling now. “Keep away from me, or I'll rip your heart out.”

Lord Lekë began to laugh. “Children, she has fire. . . . Don't bring me heiresses, or lady bankers. My heart is locked. I will have no one but her as my bride, or I'll never marry.”

She had never seen such imbecilic stubbornness, except in her father. She considered moving away from Arthur Avenue, abandoning the Bronx. This lord wouldn't have much sway outside the borough. Manhattan wasn't so fond of Albanians, who couldn't seem to flourish without the hills and highlands of the Bronx. But why should she run away? She'd lived here all her life, except for her own hard time in the prison farm. Her mother had been the janitor at an apartment house on Crescent Avenue before she went mad. The landlord had given them a ground-floor apartment in that building. The neighborhood had adopted little Angela. She'd worked behind the provolone stand at the Arthur Avenue indoor market when she was twelve, loved to watch the cigar makers, the widows with their little stash of stationery or their pots and pans. She remembered the chicken slaughterer who used to be at the end of the block, with feathers and squirts of blood in the window. Her
would earn a few dollars wringing the chickens' necks. And he could never rid himself of the chicken scales on his hands, or that horrendous smell of death.

He still had that smell, years after the chicken slaughterer vanished from Arthur Avenue. He sat in their small apartment like a man whose own madness had set him on fire but who didn't have enough substance to really burn—one day he would shrivel up and shrink into the atmosphere, shoes and all. But when she returned home after her trip to Bathgate Avenue, Papi wasn't there. Neither was the furniture, nor Angela's narrow bed. The apartment could have been swept clean by locusts.

Had the landlord reclaimed the apartment after all these years? But where the hell was Papi? And then the landlord appeared with a nervous grin. He couldn't even look into Angela's eyes. He'd rented the apartment to a plumber and moved Angela upstairs to the fifth floor. He wouldn't even raise her rent.

So she climbed to the fifth floor, and there was Papi sitting like a potentate. The new apartment looked out onto the red behemoth of St. Barnabas and the jagged landscape of the Bronx, cut in half by an expressway, which had turned everything around it into a vast moonscape of flattened warehouses and empty lots. She had been born after the expressway was built, and that's why she clung to the little oasis of Arthur Avenue, which was just beyond that moonscape and did not preside over its ruin.

But Angela wasn't a Bronx moocow. She was clever enough to know who the landlord's “plumber” was—Lord Lekë. He hadn't bought the apartment house, which belonged to the little kingdom of Arthur Avenue. He'd finessed the Italian chieftains by renting Angela's apartment at a million times what it was worth, she imagined, and thus allowing the landlord to “lend” his prize apartment near the roof to a scruffy old man with his dyke of a daughter.

She couldn't ask the landlord to give her back the apartment on the ground floor. She'd never even had a lease. Angela was caught in some kind of crazy wind. It was like the chess pieces the Albanians tossed into the air. No one knew where the pawns and knights would land.

The wild man left begonias outside her door—begonias, bracelets, and diamond rings. She couldn't accept such gifts. It would have meant that she belonged to Lekë, even if he hadn't come to claim her. She didn't have the slightest desire to return to Little Albania. So she scribbled a note to Lord Lekë and left it on his table at Dominick's.

My Lord, you must take back your presents.

I am not in love with you and never will be.

It didn't take long for the wild man to respond. Several of the clan's wives appeared in head scarves, took Angela by the hand, and accompanied her to Lekë's stronghold, which wasn't even in Little Albania but was on the Grand Concourse, near Fordham Road, in Latino territory. The cops held no sway here. The neighborhood was called Paradise Road, in honor of a nearby movie palace that had once been the crown jewel of the West Bronx, with an “atmospheric” indoor sky, filled with stars and wandering clouds. Angela was born a little too late, after the Loew's Paradise had been chopped into pieces, its ornate statues and staircases removed, and its immortal sky went dark, while Paradise Road itself was embroiled in a drug war. But the Albanians had pushed the drug lords aside, and even if Paradise Road wasn't part of Lekë's kingdom, the Latino warlords left him alone.

He occupied the penthouse of an Art Deco palace that local architects and builders had put up eighty years ago, when the Grand Concourse was the Bronx's own Jewish boulevard. A Concourse millionaire had lived in the penthouse. Lekë moved in after the millionaire fled to Palm Beach and the Concourse grew into a wild land. Paradise Road had sharpshooters reigning from the roofs. The drug lords had put them there. But after a while the sharpshooters were bored to death and would pick off children and old men . . . until Lekë had them hurled off the roofs.

The building had an Albanian doorman, who signaled with his cell that Angela had arrived and rode upstairs with her in an elevator that had a silver ceiling. She was startled by the penthouse. It didn't have one image of Lekë's ancestors on the walls, no Dukagjini in fierce tribal dress, with battle-axes and rivers of blood. Lekë himself didn't seem so fierce away from his clan. He greeted Angela in a silken robe.

“Lord, you must not send me diamond rings.”

“And why not?” he asked in a softer voice, without so much gravel. “You're the one I intend to marry.”

“I'll never marry you, sire, even if you have my father thrown into the street.”

“Ah,” he said, “now I'll have that kiss you promised me in our gambling hall.”

Her whiskers were sprouting again, but she felt sorry for this warrior-king who kept sending her diamonds, and she was in no mood to maul him.

“Sire, my kisses could be fatal.”

He pulled her close to him. She could smell the wild man's perfume. Angela herself began to feel strange and confused, even a little dizzy. She could hear Lekë's heart beat under his silk robe. She started to growl. The wild man rubbed against her. Her tongue darted into his mouth. His robe loosened. The lord of all the Albanians in the Bronx had a clit.

hey were married within a month, not at a chapel, but in the cave on Bathgate Avenue. Angela's
was there; so were members of the Neapolitan social club and the Latino lord of Paradise Road. Angela was dressed in white. She'd invited a few of her sisters from the farm, who had come to the wedding on a weekend pass. These sisters were startled to see
cat lady as a bride. How could they have known that this blond assassin and warlord was sometimes a lady and sometimes a man? He'd been wearing men's clothes ever since he was five. Lekë had come to America at fifteen, took over Little Albania before he was twenty. None of his subjects suspected that he wasn't always a man, though Albania had a long history of hunters and kings who went into battle smeared with their own menstrual blood.

Lekë was often filled with gloom. That's why he gravitated to the Grand Concourse. He could sport around as a woman or a man in his penthouse along Paradise Road. And he could also sport with his bride. He'd been in love with Angela from the moment he saw her in the Italian market, with that sad, beautiful face and the lithe body of a jailbird, and he would have destroyed a whole army of Robertsons to have her.

She couldn't always tell whether she was making love to a woman or a man—Lord Lekë was both. He wasn't like Angela's muscle-bound sisters at the farm, whose lust was limited to conquering all the new “chickens.” Lekë was always gentle with her, and it was the gentleness of a man. Angela was now queen of all the Dukagjinis, who doted on her and waited for a male heir.

She'd never been happy, not once in her life, until the king claimed her as his bride. But it was Lekë who seemed forlorn.

“I'd like to throw it over,” he said. “This pathetic charade of kingliness . . . all my little lords, with their male jokes. I'd love to crush their skulls. I promise you, I'll go to my next meet wearing a dress.”

“Lekë darling, you've never worn a dress in your life.”

He came down off his hill one afternoon and was seen wearing lipstick and a scowl while he sat with his lieutenants. What could he have said to these young, ambitious hunters of his clan? Did he have to remind them that the Dukagjinis had had other women warriors? Did they all laugh and toss little wooden knights into the air?

He survived until the next afternoon. While Angela was out walking with a bodyguard, his own hunters threw him off the terrace. They buried him at Woodlawn, traveling in a long procession to their own family plot, but without Angela, who was no longer recognized as their queen. They removed all her clothes from the penthouse. She returned to Papi's fifth-floor apartment on Crescent Avenue. He didn't even say a word, just looked at her with his bloodshot eyes, and howled once. It could have been the sound of her own heart. Her cash ran out after a month and she had to go back to work at the Italian market. It was almost as if she'd never been gone, as if she'd dreamt of that warrior-king from Little Albania, so near to Arthur Avenue and so far away.


arla Silk grew up amid that solid wall of Art Deco palaces along Central Park West. Her father was involved in some mystery called arbitrage. Marla loved to tell her friends at Fieldston that his name, Mortimer Silk, was only a mask—the Silks were Marranos who had had to change their identity hundreds of years ago as they moved from Spain to Morocco.

BOOK: Bitter Bronx
2.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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