Until the lion learns to write, every story will glorify the hunter. — African Proverb
The Devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape. — William Shakespeare
One must be a fox to recognize traps and a lion to frighten wolves. — Niccolo Machiavelli
For those who have read Weepers a while ago, and for those who have not read Weepers, here is a brief description of Nunzio Sabino, as told by Father Joe to Father Casimiro (Father Cas) in Weepers.
“In 1920... Caffè Fiora was the Baling Hook, a tough bar owned by an ex-longshoreman, Stanley Marco, and his wife Sylvia—who was every bit as tough as Stan. The place was decorated with nets, anchors, and baling hooks hanging all over the walls. It had a long bar and small tables.”
“Sounds charming,” Father Casimiro said sarcastically.
“In a strange way, it was. The booze was good. The food was tolerable. And the dancers were okay—that is, except for one. Fiora Ventosa was a delicate breeze in a cigar-filled room. And when she danced, the room dropped silent. She was sensational.”
“Not completely, more burlesque. The dancers would take off this or that but never stripped completely. Each night of the week featured a different dancer. Fiora danced on Tuesday nights. And Nunzio fell in love with her.”
“How old was he?”
“Thirteen. We were all kids about the same age. There were five of us—me, Nunzio, Pompeo—Anna’s father—
George, and Nick. We would sneak in every Tuesday night. Sylvia knew, but let it slide.”
“Did Fiora know how Nunzio—”
“Probably. She would sometimes sit with us after her show. Thinking back, she probably thought it was cute, and compared to the rest of the clientele, we were safe, adoring fans. We would sit there and Nunzio would be transfixed. She was seventeen and Nunzio figured a four-year difference wasn’t that much. So, after watching her dance every Tuesday for seven or eight months, on the third Tuesday in January 1920, Nunzio decided to tell Fiora he wanted to marry her. Seems silly now, but back then...what did we know? Anyway, Nunzio had to work late, so we waited for him and then we beat it over to the Hook.”
Father Casimiro loved these stories. They gave him a history, like he belonged to the neighborhood. “Did he tell her?”
“When we got to the Hook, Stan was shoving everyone out of the place, telling them to go home. Somebody, I don’t know who, said, ‘You kids better not go in there tonight.’ We pushed our way in against everybody leaving. There were several overturned tables and a couple of people standing around looking down.”
“Looking down?” Father Casimiro dodged several kids running along the sidewalk.
“Sylvia was sitting on the floor crying. Fiora was lying on the floor, covered by a large flannel shirt. Her head in Sylvia’s lap. Stan was arguing with a big guy they called the Bear. He was six- foot-six and must have weighed in at over three hundred pounds. He was a foreman on the docks and a neighborhood bully. The Bear stood there in a T-shirt and said to Stan, ‘Don’t you say nothing, you hear me? Nothing.’ Sylvia shouted up at the Bear, ‘You sonofabitch, you killed this little girl.’”
“What? She was dead? He killed her? Why?”
“The drunken Bear wanted to see more skin. He yanked her off the dance floor. She fought and he broke her neck.” Father Joe lit a cigarette and handed the pack to Father Casimiro.
Father Casimiro lit a cigarette and took a long drag. “Poor girl.” Cigarette smoke escaped with the words. He handed the pack back to Father Joe. “Nunzio must have been devastated. You all, just kids, must have been—”
“It was the only time I ever saw Nunzio cry. Ever. It was the most heart-rending, profound sadness I ever witnessed. Nunzio dropped to his knees and touched her face. Meanwhile, the Bear was standing over Sylvia with his two buddies, one on either side of him, and he said to Stan, ‘The girl’s trash; nobody’s gonna miss her. So, you and your wife keep your mouths shut.’ He reached down and grabbed his shirt off Fiora and started to put it on.
He continued, “That was when I noticed that Nunzio was missing. And then I heard the scream. It didn’t sound human. It was pain and fury. It was Nunzio, and he was in midair—he jumped from the top of the bar behind the Bear. In each hand, he gripped a baling hook—he had taken them off the wall. He looked like an eagle screaming in for the kill. The Bear’s arms were halfway in his shirt sleeves when the points of the heavy hooks pierced his deltoid muscles from behind. The hooks hit both shoulders and sunk behind his collarbone.”
“Dear God,” Father Casimiro shivered as he imagined the pain of a thick steel hook sinking into his shoulder muscle.
“The Bear roared and swung from side to side. Nunzio held on tight to the hooks, his legs flying from left to right, back and forth. The Bear’s arms were pinned halfway in his shirt. He kept trying to grab Nunzio’s legs. But with each movement, the hooks sank deeper.”
Father Casimiro was no longer aware of the people pushing past him, some smiling and nodding. The musty beer and sawdust of the Baling Hook filled his senses. He imagined the blood spurting from the hooks, and a thirteen-year-old boy hanging on—fortified by rage. Father Casimiro smoked and listened. “What about the Bear’s friends?”
“The two of them grabbed at Nunzio, and that’s when we—all four of us—jumped in. I was a pretty good boxer by then, and Pompeo was always a strong kid. Nick pulled a knife, and George grabbed another baling hook off the wall. The Bear’s buddies ran out of the place; they weren’t up for the fight. After that, the only ones in the Hook were Stan, Sylvia, the Bear, Fiora, and us. The Bear started spinning and coughing up blood. Nunzio just held on. We were trying to get them apart. But the Bear kept spinning, knocking over tables. And Nunzio was like a cape flying from the Bear’s shoulders.
“Then, finally, the Bear dropped to his knees, straight down, his arms dead, draped at his sides. As the Bear fell forward, Nunzio pulled on the hooks. The Bear growled and then whimpered as his face cracked the wooden floor. All the time, Nunzio held onto the hooks—pulling. He let go when the Bear rolled over on his back—hooks still buried in his shoulders. He looked straight up at Nunzio.”
“He was still alive?” Father Casimiro gasped.
“Only for a moment or two. Nunzio wasn’t finished, but Stan grabbed him and said, ‘He’s gone. You kids get out of here so we can clean up.’ Nunzio never fell in love again.”
“Did she have any family?” Father Casimiro asked, flicking his cigarette into the gutter. “I mean, Fiora.”
“Fiora was fifteen and pregnant with Natale when she arrived in New York from Genoa. The Cherry Street Settlement took her in and after Natale was born, they got her a room with Sylvia and Stan, who hired Fiora to tend bar and dance on Tuesday nights. Fiora Ventosa was born on the third Tuesday in March and seventeen years later died on the third Tuesday in January, and her only family was two- year-old Natale Ventosa. No one ever knew who the father was. Natale was raised by Sylvia and Stan.”
“What about the police and the Bear’s friends?”
“No police—Stan fixed that. But the Bear’s pals came after Nunzio. The five of us were inseparable. Nunzio was, is, a born leader. Battle after battle, victory after victory, we quickly gained a reputation. Eventually other guys wanted to join our gang. By sixteen, Nunzio was the most powerful gang leader in the city. When he was twenty, he bought the Baling Hook.”
“He bought it?”
“Stan had passed away a couple of years earlier, so Nunzio turned it into a pretty good restaurant—no dancing—and re-named it Caffè Fiora. He sent Sylvia money every month to cover Natale’s financial needs. He paid Sylvia more than she ever dreamed to run the restaurant. When Sylvia died in ’51, Nunzio gave the restaurant to Natale.”
“So, you became a priest to ...”
“The battles we won were hard fought and people were killed. We all...I killed,” Father Joe confessed. “At nineteen, I decided to become a priest and devote my life to saving as many kids in these neighborhoods as I could in return for God’s forgiveness. We have an uneasy relationship—I’m certain God doesn’t always agree with my methods, and I have some questions for Him as well. But I’m sticking to the deal.”
“What about the other kids? Did they stay in the gang?”
“No. Pompeo is a foreman at the meat market, Nick became a cop, and George is a foreman on the docks. But on the third Tuesday of each month, the five of us go back there, just like when we were thirteen, but now it’s the Caffè Fiora—and we play poker in the back room and talk about how fast time passes.”
“Does Natale know?”
“Sylvia told her the whole story. Natale loves Nunzio like a father,” Father Joe said as he and Father Casimiro passed Columbus Park and made a left from Mulberry Street onto Worth Street. “This is the end of Little Italy.”
As they reached St. Joachim’s, Father Casimiro said, “I think I’ll walk over to the Settlement. You want to come with?”
“Come with?” Father Joe teased. “Sure, I can use the exercise.”
“Does Nunzio ever worry about some ambitious hooligan wanting to take over? Or is that just in the movies?”
“Hooligan?” Father Joe smiled. “Nunzio is the top lion. He is constantly watched by the ambitious and the aggrieved. He can’t show weakness. He can’t let a single insult—especially a public one—go unchecked. Continued leadership requires constant vigilance and no margin of error. None.”
“It is. The only time Nunzio can relax—really be himself, joke around—is with us, the kids who grew up with him, on the third Tuesday of the month.”