Where Words Defy the World
Cannery Row Magazine
A Literary Journal . . . with Benefits
In the Beginning
by Chris Nash
Excerpts from Life Happens - An Autobiography
Pebbleridge Press, 2022
My Parents Met - and so . . .
After the mine roof crushed the life out of her man in the Rhondda, my Ma went to live with her mother, my Mamgu, in a tiny house on Union Street in Bideford. She often told me the magical tale of meeting Da.
At the September Fair in 1937, she consulted 'The Great Madame Santori' (Mrs. Robinson from Barnstaple) in a yellow-and-green-striped tent by the River Torridge. The dark shadows in the crystal ball showed violent deaths, more than one perhaps? Yes. Yes. And a funeral? Well, a funeral usually follows a death. Sensing scepticism, Madame Santori sought firmer ground, the Future. There would be better times. Romance, maybe. She saw a boat, water, a man by the water. . .
For a bet, Da had his tea leaves read in Treorchy. His first wife had died of consumption. He had one boy left at home and he was almost 15. Madame Jones - Mrs. Jones the Wash - said his tea leaves showed a new woman in his future. He would meet her near water.
In May the next year, Mam waited on the quay for my Auntie Eirwen to arrive on the boat from Swansea for her annual holiday. On the run round the coast from Ilfracombe, Auntie Eirwen had met Da. He was stopping in Appledore with an old friend.
"There's my sister in the blue hat. Hey love, over here, this is . . . Sorry, I don't know your name . . . We met on the boat." Mam couldn't believe it. A man, a boat, water . . . They were married in 1938.
When Did I Begin?
Most of what we 'remember' is hearsay, what our parents, our parents' friends, complete strangers have told us. Yet some 'memories' seem so vivid, they must be real.
I was standing at a window in a house, not our house. I see flames shooting high into the sky from terrace houses across an open space. The black-out curtains are burning in the tall stairwell windows. Someone shouted, "Incendiaries!". Arms grab me around my waist to carry me down into the urine-damp concrete air raid shelter. I know now I was almost three at the time. The burning houses were in Edinburgh. We went there for the birth of my nephew - August 1942.
I think I remember standing in a forest of legs in the corridor of a train clacking through the night - the smell of damp khaki and smoke in the tunnels. I don't remember pointing to the sky and saying, "Plane, plane", over and over at the sound of the bombers droning towards their targets. My Mam told me that. Was it annoying or cute? She didn't say.
Evacuees spent the War in Bideford. Then came the VE Day parade, the brass band, Navy Cadets and the Legion, and the free ride on the 'Bluebird' power boat downriver to Instow. The War ended for us when Uncle Bert's ship came home, bringing the Prisoners of War from Singapore, and for us, bananas and dress-making silk.
"I remember, I remember . . ." the Ropewalker's house built in 1630, where I was born in 1939. On the Rope Walk, men and boys twisted hemp and guided the rope through iron posts.
In 1946, Mam bought the house from our landlord for four hundred pounds, the small fortune left her by her older stepbrother, my Uncle Will. She renamed Number Five Rope Walk, 'Goodwill Cot'. She felt so proud to own a home. All I felt was the cold sealed in by the three-feet-thick stone walls. Even in summer, the shadow of the tall, former factory across the alley kept the sun in its place, far above us.
In winter, I dressed in bed, wriggling into my school clothes under the patchwork quilt. I crept down the stairs when I smelt the driftwood kindling in the old iron stove. The smoke blowing back under the corrugated iron sheet below the mantle condensed into a layer of soot on the Welsh Dresser, the skew (a wooden settle with storage for miners' clothes) and the gaslamp mantle. Mam coaxed the flames to boil a kettle to make tea to moisten my shredded wheat and refilled the kettle for my stand-up wash at the stone sink in the scullery.
Saturday nights, I had my bath in a little tin tub in front of the fire. She added more hot water for her bath after mine. Outside the scullery door was 'the lav', When ice formed on the seat from the cistern's drip, I would squat over the hole so as not to get stuck. In term time, I waited to use the indoor toilet at school.
A stair door led to two bedrooms. More stairs led up to the attic, a long, low, narrow room with daisy-patterned wallpaper where I played for hours with my older brother's rubber Lego set. He was off in the War. There was a crawl space under the roof with a concealed door from the stairs. Mam said it had once been a priest-hole.
Penguins and Pain
Sometimes our favourite 'memories' are just stories our parents tell us. But those are still a precious part of who we are - like the penguins at Edinburgh Zoo in 1942. Mam said that I somehow got into the Penguin enclosure. I can't say I remember it. She said I was wearing a black oilskin coat and sou'wester and yellow boots. Perhaps that's why the Emperor Penguins just seemed to accept the tiny intruder. The Zookeeper was not so accepting. My mother was frantic. So I was extracted, probably protesting. Birds are supposed to imprint on humans. I must have imprinted on penguins, because I've always loved the smelly, little seabirds. Kids can't get into the Penguin enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo now. I've checked.
Back in Bideford, the War was in the newspapers. Only a couple of bombs actually fell near us, and mother said that wasn't deliberate. Food was rationed but my mother got half a pint of milk daily, and orange juice concentrate from the Health Office, just because she had me. We picked wild blackberries in the woods, and loganberries and strawberries out our back. I was almost four when my Mamgu (grandmother) died, the only time I was left with a babysitter, my cousin Claude, Uncle Bert's son. I must have been angry. I bit him repeatedly, leaving red marks on his arms. I remember believing it didn't hurt him because he was grown up. I told him so. We must both have been really glad when the family came back from the cemetery. We were in my grandmother's little house, which I do remember, because Cherry, my school-friend and later wife of Julian Luxton, lived there years later.
Temperance Lloyd's Cottage
It was 1944, a cold and hungry wartime in England, precious little to buy in the shops, and rationing. I was four-years-old when I looked over a tiny wooden gate at a moss-covered, broken path leading to the door of a cottage. The well was in the back garden. Mam said the owners were called 'witches' - a very long time ago, before Mamgu was born. Really, they were just poor, old women. Like us, they picked firewood in Appledore woods. We went there early of a morning so no one would see us.
"They were just old women who grew herbs to help the town people, 'specially the women. They were better than the doctors then. Maybe better than them now." Mam and Mamgu grew herbs out the back. Mamgu's kitchen always smelt of the herbs. Sunlight filtered through the jars of liquids, green, brown, pink, purple, on the window sill. She would smell when the medicine was ripe through the tiny holes in the lids. My Mamgu still knew the old ways.
The Rectory was on the road near the witches' house. In St. Mary's Church, the list of rectors includes Michael Ogilby, the man who helped get the witches killed. Mam said he didn't mean any harm. He was afraid of the King. And a book told him what he must do. Mam said the Bideford witch, Temperance Lloyd, could read. She read the Latin, too. A woman who could read was the devil's daughter. They say . . . They said . . .
Standing by the cottage in 1944, I could feel how they lived. Hunger and cold feel the same, whatever century you land in. The records show that the Bideford Witches' cottage burned down in 1894.
by Roger Nash
When I proposed to my wife-to-be, a lifetime ago,
I knelt down at her feet in a romanticism as careless
as it was full of ideals. And knocked over
a plug-in kettle on the floor that she was boiling
to make some moderately well-behaved tea.
My urgent proposal leaked all over
the carpet, so she couldn’t ignore or overlook it.
Thus it was I bungled and blundered into happiness,
a cock-up, balls-up and booby of excitement.
I knew myself then, and ever since,
as a dog’s breakfast with a pig’s ear
– a rare mutation for Darwin; but evolved
remarkably well for success in stumblings.
And this poem, in respectful memory,
is a s-p-r-a-w-l, a sta er, a tott
gg er of words.
If you’re reading this, watch
out for a wet patch on your carpet.
by Randy Eady
One of the few rock art locations in Canada to be designated a National Historic Site, Ontario's Petroglyphs Provincial Park is a sacred space of global importance that exhibits the largest known concentration of Indigenous rock carvings in the country.
Created over a thousand years ago by Algonquin-speaking societies that widely traversed the Canadian Shield, Kinomagewapkong (the Teaching Rocks) is situated on a worldwide magnetic meridian of earth energy, also known as ley lines. This grid of invisible lines has been found to link prehistoric mounds, stones, sacred sites, temples/churches and geographical features all around the globe and individual lines can stretch across hundreds of miles.
Indigenous cosmological worldviews and spiritual belief systems found expression in paintings and carvings of plants, animals, human figures, spirit beings, tools and boats along with significant symbols relating to fertility, sacred geometry and characters from oral traditions that are depicted on a monumental ridge of crystalline limestone.
Red ochre was applied to the carvings, an ancient igneous pigment used for illustration purposes and to consecrate sacred sites throughout the Americas.
Perhaps the most intriguing Algonquin image is the one depicting a 'Symbolic Womb' carved above a fissure in the rock, which can be interpreted as an entrance to the underworld or the sacred womb of our Earth Mother. A carving below the female figure likely represents Mishipeshu, the underwater lynx that acts as a counter-force to Animikii, the Thunderbird.
To the Indigenous Peoples it was obvious that women, with their regenerative cycles, performed the same functions as the Earth - the source of all nourishment, protection and procreative power.
The mammoth stone outcropping - a rough rectangle measuring nearly 100 by 180 feet - is covered with well over 900 petroglyphs. More than 300 of the rock carvings are very distinct and decipherable, including the prominent figure of an Algonquin shaman.
Shamans used the site as a blackboard to teach new generations mythology and history and to conduct rituals. After ceremonies were concluded, the petroglyphs would be covered with moss and branches to protect them from the damages of freeze and thaw during Canadian winters.
It is thought that the visual literacy encoded in the carvings communicated tribal myth and memory, individual dreams and visions, thus offering cultural teachings and guidance to the First Nations who travelled across great distances to this wilderness sanctum. They also served to indicate territorial ownership and to commemorate special events among a People that otherwise relied solely on oral traditions.
The Algonquin People appear to be the latest creators - dating from about 800 to 1400 AD. It is curious to note that some carvings seem strangely out of place and closely resemble ancient art found in Scandinavia, which invites speculation that Vikings might have made it this far inland or, in the very least, come in contact with Algonquin tribes during their travels.
Additionally, two images closely resemble the hunchback figure of a Hopi Kachina flute player named Kokopelli and may be attributable to ancient migrating Hopi travelers passing through the area.
Locations for rock art carvings were chosen carefully and almost always centered within places of power or mystery – areas where the forces of nature were believed to be especially strong, often marked by natural features such as waterfalls, rock formations or caves, with preference given to locations near bodies of water.
In 1984-85, a large glass enclosure was built over the main concentration of rock art on the site as a barrier to the elements, offering protection from deterioration by algae built-up*, frost and acid rain. And, while the building is believed to be an intrusive element which detracts and separates from the site’s relationship to its natural setting, there's suggestion the structure may amplify sub-earthen, infra-tonal frequencies.
Petroglyph Park is located less than an hour's drive north-east of Peterborough and was originally established back in 1976 to preserve the carvings for future generations. 'The Learning Place' - an interpretive and educational centre within the park - offers an amazing storehouse of videos, information, hands-on activities and exhibits based on Anishinaabe history and culture.
On the other hand, it has since been claimed that the intermittent underground stream which conveyed the 'Voices of the Spirits' in Indigenous lore has gone silent with the protective glass enclosure built over the area.
Acoustic Heritage of the Ancients
Exploring the soundscapes at ancient sites via Archaeoacoustics - a study of the relationship between people and sound throughout history - may help explain why many ancient societies were drawn to places with certain acoustical properties.
Since all cultures express themselves through a variety of sonic components, applying sound-centered research to archaeological sites (architectural acoustics in buildings, caves etc.) and artifacts (musical instruments/tools) can help reveal new insights into past civilizations - their psychological as well as material characteristics.
The sacred site at Petroglyph Provincial Park perfectly exemplifies this marriage of space, sound and culture.
An underground stream flowing below the rockshelf manifests in both an audible 'gurgling sound' - associated with the voices of the 'Manitous' (benevolent or evil spirits) dwelling there - as well as subtonal vibrations/echoes which have shown to offer unique healing properties, especially in the field of microbials/antivirals.
This likely compelled frequent visits to - and embellishment of - the site and thus certainly connects to a growing base of archaeo-acoustic data collected on resonant bio-harmonics, including the effect of trance inducement for meditation and ceremonies.
A traditional Ojibwe belief holds that the maymaygweshiwuk - water spirits inhabiting underwater caves - are associated with the naturally-occurring fissures in the rock revered as the entrance to these underground springs and lower worlds. Shamanic healers would enhance these fissures with petroglyph carvings and red ochre as a ritualistic part of obtaining favours or healing from these ethereal, mystic beings.
Creating a petroglyph is, fundamentally, a rhythmic manifestation that reflects the way people naturally grasp and learn: by direct physical expression of fundamental rhythmic movement.
Rock carvers were likely guided by their own, innate rhythmic knowledge and connected to the power of nature’s rhythm deep within them through their craft.
Pounding and pecking at the rock's surface generates a state of relaxation and inner awareness. The sound of successful flint-knapping (flaking off sharp points for cutting and hunting tools) and peckings/etchings with the clashing of stones was told by resonance in ear and hand. It is a process that certainly engenders creativity, musicality and can foster personalized rhythmic patterns.
The capacity for this is inborn; we all come into the world having first experienced the pulse of our mother’s and our own heart. It is in the mother's womb where we begin our initial, intense relationship with rhythm.
Rhythm is the first information we receive. It is the bridge that guides us from the world in utero into this world. When we are in the womb, we sense the heartbeat and the flow of blood; we feel the mother's movement and hear her speech filtered through this rhythm.
Since a fetus doesn't consciously comprehend what is happening, it first begins to impulse-convert this sensation into vibrations that catalyse the neural-functional pathways to follow this rhythm entrainment. As it grows in the womb, there are millions of brain cells that fire in rhythmic synchronization in order for it to perceive what occurs around it.
Without this senso-motoric system, we would be unable to move or think or make any sense of the world. Everything we perceive is based on rhythm.
Moreover, these fundamental rhythmic movements – which underlie the matrix of all forms of music – take us to a space where emptiness and fullness, tension and relaxation all become one. In this space, opposites collide: through movement we embody these rhythms and consciously come closer to the essential experience of life's sacredness.
Offering a beautiful, secluded and tranquil setting, the park certainly speaks to being a sacred, mystical place. One could come here to reflect as well as commune with nature and her spirits. In that respect, the locale was availed by various cultures for thousands of years as a worship site. Ceremonies, vision quests and other events are still held regularly at this sanctum and it continues to be a place of pilgrimage for Indigenous and earth-connected peoples from all over the world.
An open and respectful dialogue between our cultures needs to be continually pursued in order to maintain the delicate balance of 'the Spirit of Place' and to protect an invaluable historical and spiritual treasure that, truly, cannot be replaced.
Editor's Note: For those amongst our readers who reside in British Columbia or plan to visit the West Coast, Vancouver Island has several locations that illustrate Indigenous rock carvings.
The main site is located on the Island's own Petroglyph Provincial Park - a two-hectare area within the City of Nanaimo on Snuneymuxw First Nation Territory where visitors can get a glimpse of traditional rock carvings created more than a thousand years ago. The petroglyphs there have been mostly left untouched in their natural surroundings and are scattered throughout the park. Since many of the rock faces are covered in moss, the carvings can be somewhat hard to spot at times, so the search - and discovery - is half the fun.
Other sites include 'Petroglyph Island' with nearly 100 petroglyphs spread across Gabriola Island (accessible by ferry from Nanaimo), Sproat Lake Provincial Park in Port Alberni, East Sooke Regional Park and Quadra Island (a great spot is around Cape Mudge Lighthouse).
* Several types of blue-green algae were identified in accretion on the rock art site at Petroglyphs Provincial Park, covering several hundred petroglyphs. The algae promote frost weathering by retaining water, and cause pitting and rock surface erosion. An enclosed, protective structure, with a fully glazed southeast wall, was constructed over the site to exclude atmospheric precipitation and groundwater runoff, while allowing maximum natural ventilation and passive UV solar heating of the rock surface to limit algae damage.
by Matthew Del Papa
Gino killed the engine. His vintage Caddie ticked and groaned, sounding relieved to be home.
For a long moment, Gino didn’t move. Just sat in the big car, slouching in its worn leather seat, and practised his breathing. Still hopped up on adrenaline, his pulse pounded in his throat. Eyes staring straight ahead, Gino avoided looking in the rear-view mirror. He knew what he’d see: a tired face, too wide to be handsome, dominated by a twice-broken nose and . . . blood.
So much blood, he thought. Again. He climbed from the car, dead beat after another gruelling day at the Family business, and, entering the house, called out, “Honey? I’m home!”
The clichéd line was a long-standing joke between him and the Missus.
It was late, but he knew his Tara would have stayed up for him as usual, his dinner plate ready to be reheated. She’d been a part of the business all her life - her great-grandfather had started it upon arriving from Italy - and was well aware of the toll it took.
"Gino,” she said softly, a welcoming smile on her face as she emerged from the kitchen with a steaming cup of hot cocoa in hand. Gino braced himself for what he knew would inevitably come next. Tara took one look at him and, smile fading quickly, exclaimed with dismay, “You’re covered in blood!”
He shrugged his massive shoulders, feeling the tight jacket pull at the seams. “It’s not mine.”
“Out, now!” she ordered firmly. Finger stabbing at him with an emphasis he knew better than to ignore, Tara scolded, “Do I need to remind you? We’ve got rules in this house. And what’s rule number one, heh?”
Shuffling out the front door like a chastised dog, Gino answered demurely, “Use the rear when bloody.” He walked around the side of the house to the back and stepped into the tiled mudroom. There, he stripped off his blood-soaked suit, then carefully stuffed every bit of clothing, including shoes, belt and underwear, into a large, brown paper bag.
Since Gino did most of the boss’s ‘dirty work’, he always had to buy outfits by the dozen, dressing like middle management in off-the-rack suits (customized by his wife to fit across his broad back), department store shoes, and clip-on ties that he wore for the same reason as the cops did: to come off easily in a fight. And he'd burn through them, quite literally, on a monthly basis.
Meanwhile, Tara - having cut through the house to meet him at the back - stood already in the doorframe, waiting. The bag and its contents would go straight into the basement’s custom-built incinerator. This handy device, a housewarming present from her great-uncle Salvatore who'd also gifted them the house, had kept Gino out of prison on quite a few occasions.
“Don’t forget to give yourself a good, long soak,” she told him, taking the bagful of incriminating clothes. “And wipe down everything when you’re done. I’ll go over it with bleach after you've gone to bed.”
He offered a meek, “Yes, dear,” before stepping into the bathroom cubby purposely set up in the corner of the mudroom, then squeezed his hulking body into the tiny shower stall and wrenched the hot water up to high. Head hanging low, Gino stood under the stream, waiting for the near-scalding heat to work its relaxing magic.
“How was your day?” Tara's voice came from the open bathroom door minutes, or possibly an hour, later. Gino shrugged. “The usual,” he answered through the penguin-covered shower curtain.
“And all the blood? That’s more than 'usual', babe.”
“You know what ‘defenestrated’ means?” He could almost hear Tara shake her head.
“Is that from another one of Jim-Bob’s lessons? I swear, that man won’t be happy till you know every word in the dictionary.”
“It’s when you throw a man through a window.”
“Is that what you did tonight? It would explain the blood."
Gino didn’t need to reply. He'd made it a habit to avoid answering any questions that touched on the business. He'd never lie to his wife, but he didn’t tell her every little detail either. Plausible deniability was his usual, half-joking excuse. Another useful lesson from Jim-Bob and his efforts to expand everyone’s vocabulary.
So Gino just grunted. He knew his Tara would understand.
Gino Marinelli might not have looked too bright, but he'd been smart enough, upon joining the mob, to keep a safe distance from the boss’s daughter. Instead, he'd ended up falling for the boss’s ‘niece’.
The two had met on Gino’s first day with the Battigelli Syndicate and he'd married the, then, seventeen-year-old after dating for a somewhat scandalously brief three weeks. No one thought it would last and everyone who knew Tara pitied the groom.
The newlyweds certainly made a strange pair: Gino, battered by life at twenty-three, loomed slightly above average in height but broad in the extreme, with a crooked nose and a brow thicker than most primates'. It was his hands, however, that were his most intriguing and intimidating feature. Monstrously big and weirdly lopsided, his remaining seven fingers - each bigger than an Italian sausage - could curl into fists that easily punched through walls.
Scarred beyond belief from years of abuse, those hands proved surprisingly tender whenever he touched his Tara, a privilege that always put a stupefied, gap-toothed smile upon his face.
A quiet man notoriously slow to anger, Gino had seen and committed enough atrocities over the years to have become wholly sick and tired of violence. He took no real joy in being a ‘leg-breaker’. “It’s just a job,” he'd tell everyone, including himself. His wife, however, seemed to have no problems whatsoever with the violent side of the business or his part in it. But, then, she’d been born into the Family and had never known a different life.
Mob violence had taken both of Tara’s parents before her first birthday. Orphaned, she'd been welcomed into the Family by her great-uncle, Salvatore ‘the Angel of Death’ Battigelli and, from early on, had taken to the business like a fish to water.
At age three, she'd taken to stealing kitchen knives, the bigger the better, proudly showing each one off with the only word she could say at the time: “Shiny.” Later on, at school, she had punched, clawed and bit both students and teachers indiscriminately, so that even the most expensive private institutions refused to tolerate her, despite generous donations and thinly veiled threats from her Family.
It didn't matter how rich or influential her great-uncle Salvatore was; people took to avoiding Tara Battigelli like the plague. She grew up tall, lean and sharp with strong features and, as much as the young woman struggled to control the ‘fierceness’ that lurked just beneath the surface, rumours spread far and wide that she was deeply troubled and arrogant.
All that changed when she met Gino Marinelli.
Gino adored everything about his Tara; in his eyes she could do no wrong. Not that she made it easy for him. Although she no longer clawed or bit (except in the bedroom, where, by mutual consent, anything went), she did occasionally throw a punch his way. Gino, used to worse fights on the job, took everything his Tara dished out - the good and the bad - and loved her all the more for it.
While he was grateful that his Missus had outgrown her childhood habit of flaunting her knife collection in public, he could never quite convince her to go unarmed. Tara insisted on carrying no-less-than three blades hidden about her person at any time, adjusting her weaponry the way most women coordinated their wardrobe. When going out, she always wore a skirt and preferred an elegant, gold-cased stiletto strapped around her upper thigh as her weapon of choice. At home, Tara stuck to trousers with a brutally efficient punch-knife hidden in her oversized silver and turquoise belt buckle. This ‘cowboy’ affectation looked ridiculous given that Tara rarely wore anything but silk. All her clothes were decidedly ‘bespoke’ - a term Gino had to have explained - and expensive in the extreme.
Over the years, the two had come to trust each other completely; she held nothing back and they never judged each other in any regard. Both broken, together they'd managed to beat the odds and remained happily married long past everyone’s expectations.
By the time their tenth anniversary approached though, Gino had grown more tired of the Family business than he'd ever thought possible and, finally, made up his mind to leave all the violence behind and gift himself and Tara their freedom.
Retiring from the mob usually only came about by way of a bodybag and he knew full well that his request had pretty good odds of leading down that dead-end road. His one slim ray of hope was Battigelli's fondness for his niece and the vow her uncle had sworn to keep her safe and sound under his care. No matter, he had to take the risk if it meant they would ever get the chance at a normal life.
The day finally arrived when Gino decided it was time to pose the big question to the boss. He hadn’t waited to ask his wife’s opinion and that made him even more nervous than he felt already. His Tara always knew what to do or say. She was the brains in their marriage and, knowing his own limits, he was only too happy to leave the important decisions in her more-than-capable hands. Once pointed in the right direction, nothing could distract, slow, or stop him. Ask him to make a decision on his own though . . . and he’d take an hour or more to make up his mind while probably still getting it wrong.
Trying his utmost to make the right impression, he and the classic Caddy - his only extravagance - both looked their best. The car had been a wedding gift from great-uncle Salvatore who'd handed over the keys to him with a wink, “There’s enough trunk space for three bodies. Don’t ask how I know.” The big, black Cadillac had become Gino's dearest possession and he took great care of the car, handwashing it daily and detailing the entire thing from fender to fender at least once a week.
As he stood in the boss’s office now, waiting anxiously for the man to finish his third Coke of the morning, sweat ran in rivulets down his back, plastering his shirt uncomfortably to his damp skin. The head of the Family had a habit of lining up the empty pop bottles on his desk, building a glass wall throughout the course of his daily business dealings. Only the brave, stupid, or suicidal bothered Salvatore Battigelli while he enjoyed his beverage and Gino was none of those. Interrupting the boss’s peculiar routine always proved detrimental to one's health.
Very little of the real-life mob matched what was shown on TV or in movies. Nothing proved that better than great-uncle Salvatore’s office - it was tiny, brightly lit and cheaply decorated to a fault. Posters of rural Italian life covered the walls: farming and herding scenes amidst lush greenery and picturesque, ancient villages that clung to traditions so old, only historians could guess at their possible origins. Dimestore knickknacks sat on second-hand office shelves under the glare of a single 100-watt bulb hanging from the water-stained ceiling. Warped wooden filing cabinets dominated the room, barely leaving enough space for the unfinished plywood desk. The whole place was intentionally built around one purpose only: to catch fire at the drop of a hat.
Any authorities trying to execute a search warrant would be met with Salvatore Battigelli holding a lit match. He was prepared to torch any evidence, and even himself if necessary, rather than risk going to prison. Three cans of lighter fluid were kept in the desk’s top drawer for exactly that purpose.
“So . . . what do you got against windows?” the boss asked as he placed the now-empty pop bottle on the desk, a crooked smile splitting his pale, bony features. Cracking open another soda, Salvatore Battigelli almost vibrated with a vitality unusual for his advanced age, an intense kind of energy that gave the impression he was always just on the verge a coronary.
He couldn’t have looked less the part of 'Godfather' if he'd tried: thin, blonde and blue-eyed, with an easy smile, and ears clearly befitting a much larger man, great-uncle Salvatore had the sort of face that always seemed just recently scrubbed. With a receding hairline, a fondness for pastel-coloured sweater-vests and an almost pathological aversion to sunlight, he appeared more Icelandic than Italian. The man could easily have passed for a fussy, elderly professor.
In spite of his looks, Battigelli had more skeletons to his name than could comfortably fit into a walk-in closet - just like anyone else in the business. The difference being that, as boss, he’d made sure to eliminate anyone outside the Family who’d ever born witness or even heard rumours of his, often lethal, business dealings. As he'd said to Gino when welcoming him into the Family - his words carrying both advice and warning: “Burying bodies is easier than dealing with loose tongues and snitches.”
And Gino knew for a fact that the 'Angel of Death' had buried hundreds of those who'd crossed his path the wrong way over the decades. All that remained uncertain was if - or, more likely, when - Salvatore was going to join those long-forgotten corpses.
Knowing that silence wasn’t an option in the boss's office, Gino tried to explain, “I went to the store, just like you said. Had a talk with the owner. He admitted to running a scam. I took care of it, boss.”
“You threw him through every damned window in the place!”
“The man needed . . . convincing.”
“Convincing? The poor devil had to get more than a hundred stitches!”
“He was ripping off widows.”
Great-uncle Salvatore sighed, considering the matter. “People under our protection were taken advantage of,” he uttered softly, his brow furrowed. “It couldn’t go unchallenged." Gino watched as the head of the Battigelli Syndicate worked things through. His boss never rushed a decision and no one standing before that desk ever dared hurry him along.
“Okay,” he made his final pronouncement. “Here’s what happened: We heard about his little operation and put a stop to it. The rest was punishment and warning. No one crosses us or those we look after. Got it?” Gino met the verdict with an eager nod, clearly relieved. “Good. Now get back to your usual run. And Gino,” the 'Angel of Death' added. “Stick with your fists from now on, capeesh?”
“Yes, boss, anything you say,” he answered demurely, but didn’t turn to leave just yet. “Uh, boss? I got a big favour to ask, if you could spare a minute.” The old man arched an eyebrow and waited, sipping on his Coke. Before Gino could even begin fumbling his request, the phone sharply interrupted.
“What?” Salvatore Battigelli shouted into the receiver after listening for a moment. “Who?” he asked and his face turned several shades paler at the answer. “How long?” he breathed, already pulling a pistol from his desk drawer. “Understood. Grazie.” He hung up and looked to Gino. “Trouble!”
Gino didn’t wait around for instructions after the boss explained, “The DeAngelis Family is making their move. They’ve sent the Spider.”
Hurrying out of the office, repeating “Trouble!” to everyone he passed on his way, Gino left it to great-uncle Salvatore to break the news that Fat Louis, the DeAngelis’s most feared hitman, was gunning for them. Nicknamed the 'Spider' for his cunning traps, Fat Louis - all three-hundred and forty pounds of him - had made it a habit of waiting in hiding for his victims to come to him after spreading the word. Then he shot them in the back.
People usually panicked upon learning the Spider had been sent to hunt them down - but Salvatore Battigelli wasn’t just 'people'. The 'Angel of Death' hadn't earned his nickname or climbed his way to the top of a ruthless syndicate through viciousness alone. No, great-uncle Salvatore had plenty of cunning and smarts himself. He always planned ahead and drilled his men mercilessly to ensure they were ready for any kind of 'Trouble'. Everyone admitted into the Battigelli Syndicate knew what their role was when 'Trouble' inevitably arrived.
There were three basic rules observed at all times: protect the family, destroy the evidence and never, ever talk.
Jumping into his Caddy, Gino raced home at breakneck speed. His Tara, as the adopted daughter of the Family's boss, would be a prime target. He didn’t bother slowing down much in the driveway and ploughed right into the side of the house. Shoving the car door open, not caring that it was ruined, he rushed into the house to find his Tara standing in the kitchen with the situation perfectly under control. Leaning over the dead body of Fat Louis, bloody knife in hand, his wife asked with a crooked smile, "Well? Are you going to say it or what?”
“Honey, I’m home,” he barely managed to squeeze out.
She responded with an amused grin and, ignoring his strained tone, cut straight to the business at hand, “Go get the saw. And paper bags! Lots of paper bags. The incinerator is getting a workout tonight.”
Twister in the Sun
Socrates vs. The State
by Craig Matheson
‘Twas the 5th century before our Common Era,
when alive in this time were three men:
Buddhic, Confucian, Socratic sierra
skyward ranging uplifted through Zen.
Therein India, China, or Athens,
Vigorous profiles shone for display;
The horizon of citizen passions
thusly broadened . . . to some dismay?
A Royal Pain felt for the great masses?
So annoying to imagine their struggle!
But a new icon for common classes?!
An elite could sense fortune or trouble.
As the Buddha mulled dharma in India,
debating the sanity of the System,
Confucius there reflected in China
upon ethics, morality and wisdom.
But perhaps the most tested of the three,
only Socrates did battle in war;
going on to perplex the Powers That Be
where They ultimately begged for no more.
What had brewed within Socrates the Great?
Was it trauma from war’s savage combat?
Renowned for legion defence of the state,
he survived to press 'the grand format’.
Widely viewed as a brave fighting hero,
He’d rescued fellow soldiers in battle;
The State eventually ground him to zero
for cerebrally moving ‘the cattle’.
“True knowledge” he offered as "the best good”,
though bad for engineering hive mind,
By contending ALL was NOT understood,
some deemed he was rather unkind.
Where consulting with folks upon “true knowledge”,
an advisement to find in self-search;
Divine Inspiration, not mental bondage
so tied to blind faith in a State-church.
He cleared path for Plato and Aristotle,
but how much were the three Greeks alike?
Plato grew cautious and applied more throttle
seeing his mentor seized by the Reich.
Plato wasn’t known as veteran to war;
Aristotle sought the class of a prince;
Such cherished visions of elite-adore
did swell upon Socratic Waves since.
The Wave Maker himself barely scribed his way,
He was more an Athenian to the streets;
Plato so classically moved to parlay
via dialogues written about the peaks.
The Big State-Plato penned his Republic,
twenty years beyond Socrates's death,
whereupon wished some forgotten the Lunatic,
the Greek Yoda had spread in social breadth.
Although ages have passed since an ancient year,
still standing are Socratic opinions,
despite them fielding much ridicule and jeer
from convinced gurus, or allied minions.
Into the Greek Forum he cut novel space
to openly question State Actors;
Debate the new tool (not a spear or a mace),
Peaceful Arms for a civic ‘detractor’.
Improve Women’s Rights . . . he argued a duty,
where some saw him too ugly to ignore!
He challenged bold definitions of beauty;
was a good sport if lampooned as a boar.
He refused faith in any Greek deities,
yet praised phoney Gods on a lark;
doing it all with few anonymities:
“I know that I know nothing”, his mark.
He’d seen value to get lost in talking
through searching to scan one’s lead;
Even if an endpoint stirred a mocking,
such banter germane to his creed.
Socrates and Jung both figured the same:
It’s rare folks “knowingly” act wrong;
that if (by habit) there’s others to blame,
grim shadows cast gladly along.
Impassioned not to rule upon a soul,
Liberty for each woman and man;
where the State preached about a Hero’s Role,
he’d bless: seek your own Divine Plan.
(Both) scientific theory and common law
amend stronger for trial in open debate;
His rigorous style exposed previous flaw,
and without it . . . non-sense derives more innate.
Not so Magnificent alike Suleiman,
nor Great like the ravenous Alexander,
Socrates executed as a free-thinking man
of Promethean Fire, and candour.
Hence for this fellow, shall we raise a glass?!
An Athenian the State took to task.
Socrates the Good, or Socrates the Crass!?
From within, seems a kindred place to ask.
Jerry Lewis Told Me I Was Going To Die
by Matthew Del Papa
Latitude 46 Publishing, Humour, 200 pgs, May 2023
By the time I was sixteen I’d lived in eleven different houses, so it’s perhaps not much of a surprise that, as an adult, I’ve developed an irrepressible case of 'itchy feet'.
Thus, in 2016, when I received an Ontario Arts Council Literary Creations grant - ostensibly to edit my fourth novel No Quarter - my first thought was to use this unexpected windfall to get back on the road again. Tanja, myself and our two sons had, after all, been living in a 120 year-old two-bedroom bungalow a short walk from downtown Guelph for ten years, nearly three times longer than I’d ever stayed in any one place.
My original plan had been to move to Thunder Bay - where my grandfather, and namesake, had settled after fleeing Finland in 1939 - to get back in touch with family I hadn’t seen in some thirty-five years and to conduct research for my fifth book, Savage Gerry. Tanja, though, balked at the idea of moving so far north, and when she located a four-bedroom house with a large backyard for only $1300 a month in a small town north of Sudbury, it made for an easy compromise. The prospect was sweetened by the fact that Capreol is an old CN Rail hub and much of Savage Gerry involved its eponymous lead character, Gerald Nichols, hiking northwards along the train tracks after being released from the Central North Correctional Centre in Penetanguishene. Ultimately, with its old western frontier-like trappings, Capreol itself would assume a central role in SG while shaping its narrative in deliriously unexpected ways* - a blessing for any writer conceiving a new book - and I’ll readily admit it would have been a decidedly lesser novel had it not been for local author, historian and Capreol’s de facto storykeeper Matthew Del Papa. (*for more on that please see: https://open-book.ca)
I first met Mat, as he prefers to be called, the second week after moving into the house we rented on Beech Crescent, literally a stone’s throw from the northern wilds into which my titular protagonist Gerald would flee with his teenage son after killing the men who shot his wife.
Initially hoping to find someone willing, and able, to orient me in my new surroundings, I checked out the Sudbury Writer’s Guild’s website and was pleased to discover on its author profile page that a member of the Guild resided nearby. One of Capreol’s quainter aspects is the town’s weekly newspaper, The Capreol Express, which happened to offer a local phone directory and so I was able to call Mat directly that very day.
After introducing myself, I invited him over to our place for coffee only to have him reply, “Not unless your house has a ramp. I’m in a wheelchair.” In my recollection, his voice was gruff enough to catch me a little off-guard, though it had softened considerably when he added, “But you’re welcome to drop by here.”
The address he gave me was a quick jaunt along a footpath through the woods separating our neighbourhoods and which, I’d already discovered, served as a trailhead connecting the vast network of quad(*) tracks I would spend countless hours exploring over the next fourteen months - frequently alone, since neither our Boxer/Boston Terrier cross Roxy nor Tanja were inclined to suffer the hordes of biting insects or the bitter cold that rendered my extended sojourns unpalatable to them for much of the year. (* a four-wheeled ATV)
While it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that what Mat told me on the phone wasn’t on my mind as I cut through the woods that morning, I was still mainly looking forward to talking to someone - anyone - who might be able to give me the lay of this strange, new land. Still, given Mat’s rather vague disclosure, and the grey areas inherent within, I will confess that the question of what exactly his 'disability' might entail did prick at my thoughts during the ten-minute stroll.
It was a warm, sunny day and, as I turned up the driveway leading to the Del Papa’s modest bungalow, I saw Mat waiting for me at the top of the ramp leading onto the front porch - along with a man I’d soon learn was his father, Bob, and a woman who’d introduce herself as 'Cookie', Mat’s mother. Mat himself was indeed in a wheelchair, of the electric variety, and a single glance at the man seated within it was enough to resolve any questions regarding the full extent of his disability. His greeting was more than warm - one might even call it boisterous - as were the ones extended by his parents. To be completely honest, my foremost reaction upon meeting the Del Papa family had little to do with Mat per se, but rather with his mother who, I was relieved to notice, was smoking a cigarette, meaning I wouldn’t have to be shy about having one - or, more likely, a half-dozen - myself while Mat and I talked.
Our first 'chat' lasted the longside of four hours and would establish a sort of template for future conversations that would become a highlight of my week over the next fourteen or so months. If the weather was warm and dry, we’d most often start on the porch and, after basking in the sun for an hour or so, retire to the living room or Mat’s bedroom.
'Guests Never Leave Hungry' seemed to be the motto - or simply a way of life - in the Del Papa household. A bounty of snacks was always on hand and warmly proffered invitations to dinner or lunch generally accompanied every visit. Cookie and Bob proved themselves as proficient in the conversational arts as their son, though it would be Tanja, after she’d taken to accompanying me, who’d become the main beneficiary of their gift of the gab. Mat and myself would inevitably become embroiled in discussing the finer points of the writing craft - along with anything else that sprung to mind - and his room frequently served as our desert island, with us its more-than-willing castaways.
Given that Bob was a retired CN man who’d moved with Cookie, an American, to Capreol in the Railway's heyday during the 1970s, stories about trains would invariably pepper our free-flowing conversations. Recounts of derailments as replete with heroics and tragedy as often as they were full of humour: accounts of residents flocking en masse to these accidents in the hopes of salvaging what they could from toppled cars; stories about how fuel leaking from cannister cars had set the Vermilion River on fire not just once but twice; about work crews and the trappers who supplied them with meat, about summers spent at family camps scattered along the tracks . . . Stories, in short, which infected my imagination with such fervour that, when I sat down to write Savage Gerry, it was clear that I’d have to write it as a modern-day Western if I had any hopes at all of capturing the essence of the place I’d come to know under the Del Papa family’s patient tutelage.
Otherwise, as with any conversation worth even a solitary grain of salt, nothing was off the table and, if there is any topic that Mat considers even in the least discomforting, I never managed to stumble upon it. Mind you, the one thing Mat and I rarely ever talked about was the Spinal Muscular Atrophy (AMS) which has kept him confined to a wheelchair since he was eight, though it was not an omission caused by any awkwardness around the subject on either of our parts, but simply because, in the heat of our discussions, it hardly seemed relevant.
Still, curious minds being what they are, I will concede that I oftentimes wanted to broach the issue with him in more depth, which is why I was delighted to discover Sudbury’s Latitude 46 would be publishing Jerry Lewis Told Me I Was Going To Die, Mat’s book of essays on just that very subject.
While the collection does fill in plenty of the blanks for this, or any, inquiring mind, it turned out to be the least of its pleasures. With Mat’s characteristically sardonic - and often self-deprecating - wit, the book proceeds with the same rambling fury that I’d come to treasure when speaking to him in person and, just like during our chats, no topic is too profane, or profound, to warrant exclusion with laughter rarely more than a breath or, in this case, a page away.
To co-opt a comment he made as a footnote in “Good Old Accessible U” - a chapter in which he discusses an all-too-successful job interview he once had at Laurentian University and one that should be mandatory reading for anyone working in Human Resources - much of the book’s indomitable charm has “everything to do with the absolute brutal honesty [he] employs when being interviewed. There is no prevarication or obfuscation. [He] lays everything on the table and, usually, leaves [his] interrogator baffled by [his] forthrightness.”
Baffled, perhaps, but no doubt he left just as indelible an impression on his interrogator as he has on me (the same impression, I suspect, he’ll leave with any reader who spends even a moment perusing the musings in this collection). And, while his 'brutal honesty' is, in fact, what makes this collection truly shine, Mat is far too nuanced a writer to let this forthrightness about his 'affliction' overwhelm the reader with a real or lasting sense of pathos at any point.
Take, for example, “In Case Of Emergency”, a chapter which resonated deeply with me. His perspective on how he uses personal trauma to inform his fiction, even as he writes fiction to lessen its impact, was startlingly similar to my own - a commonality I was pleasantly surprised to discover since, as far as my recollection goes, it was something we somehow hadn’t managed to touch on during the hundred-plus hours I spoke with him at his house. This is how he starts:
“What’s sadder than a ten-year-old walking home through the rain? A crippled ten-year-old driving his electric wheelchair home through a late autumn deluge and getting intentionally drenched by passing cars. Living through this humiliating bit of childhood misery, I swore I’d never get caught out unprepared again.”
And therein lies the heart of the book. Instead of lingering on “this humiliating bit of childhood misery” he uses it to highlight how his AMS, rather than simply restricting his mobility, has provided him with a unique perspective and an urgency, which I suspect most authors - particularly those of us who’ve been called to write fiction - will find intimately relatable. Coming to grips with childhood fears, irrational or otherwise, certainly motivated much of my own early attempts at prose. And so it was with a deepening affinity that I read, a few pages later, about how, every time he was left alone upstairs during fire alarms at school, “fear would run rampant” in his mind as he “sat and sniffed the air, trying to convince [him]self that any errant odour wasn’t smoke . . . as [he] endured long minutes of solitary uncertainty.” He’s then quick to note that “around others, though, I faked resignation. Pretending that emergencies never worried me became second nature. I even laughed off the awkward questions that followed these drills.”
Shortly thereafter he recounts how a well-intentioned principal had the school purchase “a terrifying machine meant to carry me down the stairs” in the event of a real fire. While being strapped into this “seat bolted onto rubber tank treads . . . proved to be a nightmarish ride” for Mat, I found myself smiling ever-wider as he described the ordeal.
I imagined him wearing the same look of grim resolve plastered on his face to conceal his abject terror as I myself had often worn when riding the demonic, child-hating Pinto my equally well-intentioned mother bought for my sisters and me after we’d moved onto a farm when I was roughly the same age as he was.
A quick read onwards, Mat reveals that as a young boy, “I lay awake in bed at night and relive each and every one of my shockingly numerous near-death experiences. That is bad enough but I cannot stop there. No, I take things further still and spin out worst-case scenarios with such vividness that they almost feel real."
Having myself spent many nights as a child lying in bed, spinning out worst-case scenarios in such vivid detail that they almost felt real - and knowing full well that such ruminations have been what molded me into the writer I am today - I couldn’t help but nod along while I read these words. Perhaps that’s why I was slightly discomfited when he begins the section immediately following the above passage with, “Being disabled means I have plenty to fear”, for presuming my own (mostly) irrational fears were any match for his, considering that even something as innocuous as crossing the street can become a life-threatening ordeal for those in a wheelchair.
But, once again, Mat’s isn’t fishing for anything approximating commiseration in the least by exposing such day-to-day realities - a point he makes eminently clear in the chapter’s final paragraphs. There, he compares his own experience with emergencies to the multibillion-dollar industry surrounding 'doomsday preppers' (though, I would suggest, this chapter’s concluding remarks are just as easily applicable to any social justice activist).
“Emergencies are no joke. A lifetime of worry has taught me better than to rely on the government in times of crisis. Trusting my health to people elected into power isn’t the smartest survival strategy . . . Around the world many forward-thinking citizens are, instead, taking steps of their own. Planning ahead and readying themselves for potential problems. Exactly as one wet cripple did more than three decades ago as he drove his wheelchair home through the rain. And that is not sad at all.”
Truer words have rarely been put to the page and it’s a credit to Mat’s deft approach to his collection of writings that such passages are commonplace in his works. In the weeks since I first read Jerry Lewis Told Me I Was Going To Die, the book has come to reside in my mind less as a compilation of essays about someone who’s disabled and more as a Künstlerroman about a writer coming into his own - some might say against overwhelmingly adverse odds. Although, knowing Mat as I do, I doubt he ever would.