Travellers, a novel excerpt by Timothy Ready

It’s not commonly known, but tornadoes do on occasion tear through New England, have been known to cause massive damage when this occurs, and it was just such a violent storm and its aftermath which had changed so much of Brian McReynolds’s life when he was just a boy of seven—now fully twenty-one years before he and his traveling companion Ditch were stuffing beef jerky and Twinkies down their pants while the cashier was busy counting change at a dingy convenience store on the outskirts of Spokane, Washington.

Brian grew up, predictably and somewhat fittingly, on the wrong side of the railroad tracks that bisected West Warwick, Rhode Island. It was a vulgar country town rife with Podunk graft and welfare fraud, moribund economy and varicose industries, too many young men whose only adornments were flannel shirts and axle grease, too many young women who missed their senior prom because they couldn’t find a baby sitter, an impoverished hamlet where rickets and head lice epidemics hit the foul-mouthed children with the assuredness of a Dickens novel and a terrible place for a homosexual to grow up. And of course, he knew, had from a very early age, which was just fine, except lots of other people knew too and that was less than fine. It made for some rough gym classes by the time the kid reached middle school.

The tornado in question emerged one late spring day and flattened almost the whole of the Irish and Italian ghetto where he lived, a place hatefully called Shamrock Park, the first part because of all the breadline micks and the second part because of all the doublewide trailers cinder blocked atop it filled with all those breadline micks—a place so impoverished, tough and mean even the stray dogs had “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed across their paws. Brian’s family was one of the few who lived in an actual house, and amazingly—and to embittered patriarch Andy McReynolds’s furious rage and regret, over many years—this one lone dwelling survived the hundred-mile-an-hour winds and swirling debris which had turned every other filthy property to matchsticks and unidentifiable junk. Andy mourned the lack of this tender mercy upon his ramshackle home until the day he died.

The tornado left chaos. Poverty’s flotsam littered the roads like an open-air thrift store. Redundant Tupperware and Suffering-Christ-adorned knickknacks joined in incongruous piles with dog-eared pornography and seldom read family Bibles, a useless pile of detritus, lascivious and prude. Naked-girlie mud flaps hung from limb-shorn trees, primered Fords and rusted Chevys lay in shattered hulks like massacred beasts, the occasional dead chicken or dog spot-weld gutted in the rubble, smashed and surprised, like the humans who now had to make sense of this act of a malevolent god. Most viewed the turmoil as a catastrophe unique, unprecedented and born of satanic mischief. Not all, however. Brian’s father felt that he had missed the one undeniable lottery that had literally blown through town those many years before, and while everybody else got a fresh start, bigger trailer and a new TV, he got nothing but emergency-management-rich neighbors and a brood of buck-toothed children who bemoaned their penury in an endless wassail of why-not-us. Goddamn them all, thought the bitter man, Andy McReynolds’s house had taken virtually no damage, he got absolutely no insurance money, and there they still were, living in this Rhode Island shithole, built by his grandfather fifty years before from WPA scraps left in town, and just as ugly now with its green-shingled siding and tarpaper roof as it had ever been, a bricolage of despair, pack-ratting and unredeemed need. Not even a tornado would drop by and change Andy McReynolds’s rotten luck, Mother Nature herself just fucking despised the Irish, there was no other answer.

Brian remembered when rumors of a government man armed with disaster relief checks made its way through the blasted alcove. “C’mon, Brian, get your ass out here and help me fix this place,” his father had said, though his idea of “fixing” was very strange to the boy. They spent the next two hours ripping pieces of siding off of the framing, cleaving a hole in the porch with a spade, chucking shovelfuls of dirt at the windows and roof, trying to make the house look damaged, trying to get some relief from the big shot Federal man with the fat checkbook. But there was no government man with a fat checkbook. It was just a bit of chaos chatter and clamor from people who needed something to talk about after their pathetic lives and property had been destroyed. The “fixing” had all been an imbecile’s gambit and a loser’s ruse, and Andy got nothing but mocking and scorn for his intrigues. The hole in the porch stayed there, never repaired through all the many years following, forever a reminder of Andy McReynolds’ pissant fraud. If there was one symbol for the uselessness of his childhood, the nothing of his father, Brian thought that hole in the porch was it. Everybody else in Shamrock Park got a check, and all Andy McReynolds got was hatred from his wife, and blank stares from his kids, every time one of them stumbled into his numbskull money pit on the front porch of their miserable, misbegotten house.

Things then became truly strange for the young boy with the oversized Chiclet teeth the Irish-American race is so prone to produce. For about six months, Brian had no neighbors. They were all off with relatives and in FEMA shelters while the checks were being processed and the construction crews called to work—which was fine by Brian, since with no neighbors that meant no neighborhood kids, and that meant fewer beatings and abuse while he sat in the yard under a big linden tree morosely reading Encyclopedia Brown books and zap-gun sci-fi. Then a trickle of refugees began to return, and soon a flood, and then pretty much the whole poverty-stricken neighborhood was back, except now they were poor people with brand new homes and big government checks to spend on replacing their lost possessions.

Some of the consumer decisions made in Shamrock Park did not necessarily reflect a long-term view for reconstruction.

A check would arrive down the block and Andy McReynolds would sit on his dilapidated porch and watch some goddamn neighbor getting a huge marble dining room table delivered. The next day, a tiger-striped chinchilla shag rug and three-sectioned Corinthian leather love seat-couch combo would arrive. The next week, scaffolding would surround the new doublewide and pillars would be affixed to the front of the home—the goddamned stupidest thing Andy had ever seen, a façade—on a trailer. People had balls, they did.

Soon the money was all spent. But, down to the last profligate family, the locals seemed to have forgotten to procure their essentials, opting instead for a variegated bacchanalia of kitsch, tchotchkes, bric-a-brac and junk. And the most amazing sights greeted Brian when he visited his few friends in Shamrock Park…

Two-thousand dollar televisions sat upon buckling cardboard boxes, the very ones they had been packaged in, and the center of that box could give way at any time, and often did, leading to beatings, threats and restraining orders. Smoked-glass dinner tables with etchings of birds-in-flight supported cracked dinner plates stolen from restaurants or bought at St. Vincent de Paul stores, the cutlery often as not made of plastic. Porcelain toilet fixtures would be smashed in a night of liquored rage (so common in this food-stamp grotto) and left unrepaired. Whole families would have to shit elsewhere, no apologies were made and no explanations granted; it was poverty raised to the art of insouciance. Hungry children played in the rubble fields that still spotted the neighborhood, and waves of sated rats swarmed the new trailers and devoured the Wonder Bread moldering in kindling-wood cupboards. Everything looked like a half-abandoned project begun by a town full of impulsive spenders with no memories, no foresight, no futures. Shamrock Park was a white-trash hellhole of dirty children and interior decorating decidedly louche; Brian grew up in the one lone house that had survived this spate of tasteless rebuilding, and his father cursed that sucker punch every day, drinking his beer in the morning and rye at night, nursing his rage and sucking a disability pension for every goddamn penny it was worth. Not a quarrelsome drunk, Andy was, just eternally depressed and fiendishly introverted. Brian had no father to speak of except for everything bad. It was a mean existence.

Nothing made sense to the boy anymore. Memories were unreliable and perspectives unfamiliar. The brand new trailers and restored particle board shacks were left to rot slowly, from season to season in the harsh extremes of the Rhode Island climate, but rot all the same they did and soon enough lawns were strewn with broken junk that the township steadfastly refused to remove. Neighbors would quarrel over whose ghastly front yard set piece was ruining whose view; and the sound of the violence—verbal and ecstatic, the braying rage shrieking in the cadence of Little Rhody—could be heard almost every day along the potholed dirt roads where Brian walked to get away from his torment. And so he grew up more withdrawn and meek, a pallid little boy with few friends and the terrible secret of what he noticed when his classmates changed their shirts in the locker rooms before twice-weekly anti-faggot dodgeball massacres.

His enemies in dodgeball were the children of Andy’s drinking compatriots—many of whom had strict orders from these men to beat the tar out of Shamrock Park’s one known queer, “for his father’s sake.” Andy would stroll down to Nick’s Hideout Bar and drink piss-colored draught water vaguely identifiable as “beer” with local quasi-organized-crime luminaries like “Carface” Arthur Delvecchio and Paulie “Pork Paw” Fugazzotto, both of who sported a colorful provenance for their sobriquets. “Pork Paw” was so known due to two massive fists, raw and meaty like a pair of thick-sliced pork chops, which he used to collect money for loan sharks, threaten his wife into utter despair and shell-shocked quietude, and beat his son Paulie Jr. so often and so fiercely that he ended up madly desperate to please his father, a stutterer, and incontinent—Pork Paw a man so mortified by his son’s faulty bowels, which brought nothing but shame upon the heretofore respected Fugazzotto name, that he would wail at Nick’s Hideout how “My son shit hisself at his Confirmation—how am I ever going to go back to that fucking church?” The boy was beaten so ferociously over this disastrous and ill-timed shitting he acquired his own nickname—“Punchy”. The father reliving this event for years, inevitably Punchy would face Pork Paw’s wrath, and then take out his own rage upon Brian. Coming home beaten one day—yet again—by a neighborhood bully and this time bloodied to a dangerous and drained hue, Andy called from the living room couch as to what had happened to leave his son such a mess. “I got beat up again, dad,” Brian said.

“By who now, I suppose?”

“Punchy Fugazzotto.”

“You mean the kid that shits hisself in church? Christ, who doesn’t kick your ass? Get up to your room and clean up, you panty-waste, and learn how to fight or don’t come cryin’ to me,” Andy said, all the wisdom and fatherly sympathy he could muster being the brutal mote he’d just spat, then back to his “programs” and endless chain of smokes. Brian did as he was told, and cried for the rest of the night into his blood-soaked pillow.

As bad as Pork Paw’s offspring was, the terrors of Arthur Delvecchio’s son Nicky were even worse. Arthur himself had been in and out of jail for years—his nickname acquired after a knife-fight in prison where he was serving time for selling stolen cable TV-box converters, a jagged, masculine cicatrix which cleaved his left cheek from ear to jowl. Not going into something of such heft lightly, Arthur wrote to the surviving relatives of Al Capone, requesting permission—“with all due respect”—to resurrect the nickname “Scarface” and apply it to himself. When this was granted, he went to a particularly incompetent Hispanic jailhouse tattoo artist, who managed to so bungle the job that the tattoo across his chest looked like it read “Carface”, along with—for some unknown reason—two playing cards, one of which was a Queen Of Spades, which caused its own problems in a prison, as can be imagined. And so it stayed—because to admit that he had the most ridiculous jailhouse tattoo in all of New England would be to admit that Arthur Delvecchio could somehow completely fuck something up, and do so in a way which rotted his dignity and left him marked for life like the jackass, low-rent, pseudo-Mafiosi that he was. Thus it was best just to ignore Carface’s faulty ink.

And as with the Fugazzotto boy, if the phrase can be pardoned—shit rolled downhill. It was said that Nicky Delvecchio was the stupidest kid to ever walk the unpaved streets of Shamrock Park—so damnably dumb and thick that he had acquired his very own nickname—“Nicky Bag O’ Hammers”—at a tender age befitting a range of prepubescent, blockheaded debacles, and his father wondered how he would ever make it in life if he couldn’t be taught to fix a craps game or cook the books on the family’s fraudulent masonry and tiling business. Notorious for having once locked himself inside a pay-toilet so insuperably that it had taken his father six dollars in quarters to get him out, confounded by even the most basic concepts such that he often tied his shoelaces with a stapler, rumored to have a lifetime losing streak in both tic-tac-toe and the old “got your nose” game, and seemingly incapable of doing anything without a disaster following in his wake, Nicky Delvecchio was, to sickening perfection, the terror of intelligent and sensitive children everywhere—the obtuse and rampant bully who wielded his fists with the prodigality unique to the brain-damaged, hulkishly deformed and just plain stupid. The legend of twelve year-old Nicky Delvecchio locked in the pay toilet haunted the clan for years; Shamrock Park scuttlebutt told of how Carface absolutely raged at his son stuck inside the john at the Big Lots discount store—“Nicky, you fuckin’ stronzo…locking yourself in the shitter like a nut, your mother should have had an abortion…goddammit stop pushing on the door when I drop the quarter in—pull Nicky, PULL!” And, twenty-four tries later, Nicky finally figured out what his father meant by “pulling” on the door and exited to safety, though the resultant razor-strop beating that night was bad even by the Delvecchio’s stockyard-slaughterhouse standards. So what else was there to do for young Nicky the next day but to wait for Brian in the woods, beat him up, steal his bicycle and throw it in the Pawtuxet river—where, presumably, it lies to this day. Such is the reality of childhood bullying.

This kind of mindless violence continued for years, compensatory brutality borne uniquely of poor Nicky’s imponderable doltishness. Once, Brian was behind his nemesis on the way to the bus stop, and overheard Nicky repeating “linguini-rigatoni, linguini-rigatoni” ahead of him, apparently the only mnemonic device ever contrived to help the cruelly-encumbered child tell the difference between “left” and “right”—and even then he had to mutter his potato-brain mantra sotto voce as he walked, unable to merely put one foot afore the other, so stupid was he. Nicky virtually dared his class-conscious father to correct his failings, which Carface did, as his kind is wont to do, with hate and rage born from his own failure and shame. And so Nicky—already sprouting mannish hair on his chest and armpits at ten—would ambush Brian on the way to school, take his lunch money, and return this pitiful bounty home to his father in tribute—as if to prove he could, after all, be a perfectly competent criminal, even if his daily take was the free-lunch token the McReynolds’ children had handed over in cafeteria lines for several generations. The lessons thus learned of childhood in Shamrock Park were harsh, indelible: Shit and Beatings, Beatings and Shit. It was why Brian told his friends years later that nothing was tougher than being a gay kid in a violent backwoods wasteland of thugs, drunks, generations-long impecunious losers-­and their brain-damaged children. Nothing.

When Brian was fourteen, he had his first kiss—a shy Portuguese kid from New Bedford in a grubby wifebeater-T just like his father’s grabbed him on the sly at an outdoor concert in Colt State Park, then punched him in the gut when he tried to repay the favor a few hours later. The next day, Andy McReynolds called the family together in the living room, with a major announcement regarding his health.

He was fifty-four years old and looked every second of it, from his rounded, drooping shoulders across a pathetic slack belly and down to legs so thin and atrophied one wondered—sometimes aloud—how they supported even Dandy Andy’s pipe-cleaner frame. He smoked too much and drank too much and ate far too little and slept like a soldier in a front line trench—one eye always open, never really getting any rest, two or three hours here or there but sure to be found at four a.m. in front of the television—a gormless solitary slouch, watching infomercials for the hundredth time soused and worrying a pack of Old Golds down to the nub, each and every one of them, like he wondered if there’d be more for sale in the morning. Life was one long restless night for Andy McReynolds, and the same doctor who signed for his disability years before now gave him an ultimatum that was almost comical in the impossibility of its terms.

“Doctor says I have to quit drinking or I’m gonna die,” he said to his family, his wife and three boys, a daughter ignored like a leper, plus the mangy, spotted mongrel dog that nobody loved anymore, and who was just as miserable as everyone else in the house. “Doctor says I gotta lay off the smokes, too, and get some exercise and go on these new pills. Doctor said a lot of things yesterday,” Andy said, with absurd stoicism, as if he were talking baseball down at Nick’s Hideout Bar, as if it should be clear to all how ridiculous the Doctor’s advice and orders had been.

“You know I love you,” he said, to a room full of people who had to take such a statement on faith, “and I wish it could be different, but I’ve talked it over with your Ma and decided I’d rather keep drinking, cos I don’t know no other way. Might last a few more years, but that’s it—pay attention to your old man while he’s around,” Andy said, and then left the room before anybody got a crazy idea like begging him to reconsider or giving him a hug. He was off to the kitchen where a fresh can of Narragansett awaited his attention along with a stubby and blessed pack of Old Golds.

Brian left the house and walked down to the train tracks, where he always went when he was dumbfounded by the rottenness of everything around him—maybe that’s where his love of train travel came from. He certainly spent enough time down by those tracks watching the freight go by, wishing he could just jump on one of the cars and wake up a day later in some whole other part of the world, away from the entire stupid state of Rhode Island and a family that was so cold they left burns on your soul. Today’s business had been too much, though.

His father had just told his family that, rather than stay alive and take care of them—something he’d never really done anyway, but whatever—he’d rather keep drinking his brewskis and nasty Canadian whisky, there was no discussion about it, life meant so little he didn’t even care enough to lie and say he’d give it a try. Just a flat-out fucking No. Brian couldn’t believe any other kid in the world had to live like this. Drunken father, hateful neighbors, tinderbox town—a veritable misery trifecta. Plus, he was queer. He felt weird and worthless, uniquely cursed and at the same time utterly anonymous, the worst combination possible of something and nothing.

And the overwhelming depression hit him for the first time, right there—right at the rail crossing where he’d spent so many hours dreaming of running away to Houston or Denver or even less ambitiously to Springfield or Boston—anywhere, any goddamn where but here. The 4:37 CSX rolled by with fifty cars, and Brian felt nothing; he didn’t cry, didn’t dream, didn’t think about his father either with love or hate—he just sat there and stared with absolutely nothing behind his gaze, including himself. He sat there for the entire night, and had only one thought the entire time; how, when he was a little boy, he’d wait for the whole train to go by, no matter how long, and wave to the caboose, and sometimes the engineer would be on the ladder and wave his flashlight back. It was the thing that had made him happiest in all the world, and he could never wave to the engineer again, because he was all grown up now. And all of that silly bullshit had to stop.

When he came home the next day, Brian went to his room and locked the door. His mother thought the trauma of Andy’s decision and announcement had shocked him so much he just needed to cry for a few days. But Brian wasn’t crying. He was sleeping. One long, deep, fever pitch of a sleep with fantastically vivid dreams and punishing headaches when he awoke. Long enough to piss he’d emerge, and then right back to bed and the foreign shore of violent sleep. And he stayed there for two weeks before anybody thought it might make sense to check in on him.

Andy died eight months after he opted for Seagram’s and shit beer over family and responsibility – his heart exploded one afternoon while The Price is Right was on, and it was the first funeral anybody could remember where absolutely not one tear was shed. Not one. He’d lived an entire life and couldn’t make anybody cry by not being around anymore. Dandy Andy’s scarecrow-skinny widow thought that had to be some kind of final pisser for the feckless jackdaw she’d wasted her life breathing with and slaving for.

Brian wasn’t present at the tearless funeral. He was locked up in a youth ward while doctors tried to decide if he was clinically insane or not. He was in and out of various kiddie-Bedlams for the next four years, sometimes functioning, more often just going through the motions, pretending to himself he was alive or even cared to be. All the therapy in the world didn’t fix him. All that talking, and there were just some days when he absolutely could not get out of bed. His mother figured he was just a clone of his father, down to his bad skin and oversized teeth.

Then one day after his eighteenth birthday—when, by law, they couldn’t keep him in the youth ward anymore when he had his spells—a miracle occurred. One of his doctors called him into his office and said there was a new pill they’d like him to try, and it might just help him stay awake a little bit more.

Especially washed down with some beer and with an Ativan to take the euphoric edge off, Prozac completely changed Brian McReynolds’s life. He left the house every day. He talked to his mother about what a bastard her husband had been. He met a few guys, and did some of the things he’d heard about but was too depressed to try. Rumors started, Brian’s mother heard the talk, and then threw him out of the house when he didn’t bother to deny that he liked to suck cock.

“You’ll prob’ly get The AIDS,” she said to him one day after the trailer park chatter had reached a disquieting crescendo.

The kid, perilously overeducated, couldn’t help himself. “Ma, the definite article…”

“Well excuse me, Mr. Big Words…you’ll definitely get The AIDS,” the hag spat, slathered with hate, and Brian stormed out of the house, tripping over the ancient hole in the porch as his own mother called him a “faggot”.

Soon enough, he was homeless and finally indulged his curiosity about those big trains and where they were going. Yes, you could say anti-depressant medications changed Brian McReynolds’ life. He was miserable and sometimes cold, but he was also free and sometimes happy. The thing about having survived Hell, you can find a bright side in damn near anything. And no matter what, he wasn’t asleep. He was alive.

Timothy Ready is a writer and reader currently residing in Tacoma, Washington.