Paradise Salvageby John Fusco, Brian Emerson
"Each new wreck towed into Paradise Salvage - where the ferocious crusher presides with its power to reduce luxury automobiles into coffin-shaped heaps of twisted metal -is a desultory gift from Fortune, a random opportunity for discovery. Sometimes it's a handful of loose change under the upholstery or an old copy of Vue magazine with a Bettie Page centerfold under… See more details below
"Each new wreck towed into Paradise Salvage - where the ferocious crusher presides with its power to reduce luxury automobiles into coffin-shaped heaps of twisted metal -is a desultory gift from Fortune, a random opportunity for discovery. Sometimes it's a handful of loose change under the upholstery or an old copy of Vue magazine with a Bettie Page centerfold under the front seat, but on a hot summer day in 1979, in the trunk of an abandoned Pontiac Bonneville, Nunzio uncovers a secret that will change his life." In the blink of an eye, all evidence is lost to the crusher, and only his older brother Danny Boy believes Nunzio's story. Enlisting the help of his father's renegade cousin, an ex-cop with a dark history of his own, they embark on a bizarre and dangerous journey that proves to be as much one of personal discovery as an unraveling of the mystery behind the corpse at Paradise Salvage.
- Blackstone Audio, Inc.
- Publication date:
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- 6.20(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.10(d)
Read an Excerpt
`Junk? Junk? Never call it junk. Salvage that's the word. Comes from salvation.'
Big Dan's hands are enormous, the color of Chinese pork. Aslant on the wheel of the tow truck, they vibrate with a diesel pulse.
`Like when them guys go diving after shipwrecks,' he says. `They call it salvage. And that's what we're doing, Nunzio. Like Jacques Cousteau. Only we ain't Frenchmen.'
`Diving for shipwrecks?'
`Bringing up treasure.'
Big Dan downrakes hard into second gear and I hasp my legs, protect the nuts. I am wedged in the frontseat between Big Dan, my father, and Little Dan who is not so little. He is nineteen, whiskey-dead. My big brother. With every retch from third to low his head knocks the passenger glass, his eyes aperture like a guppy dropped into ice water. Until he gets his bearing, sees where he is, where he's going then he closes his eyes. We know him as Danny Boy, but my father knows him as the mamaluke. Or the gigolo. I'm not sure about gigolo but I know what mamaluke means. Means Mama's boy; but can also mean moron.
`Now, the mamaluke over here,' Big Dan says, coasting the wrecker down Genoa Street, `he takes it all for granite. Your mother says fix him up a car, I fix him up a car. But what's he do? He goes to the Swizzle Stick or Gigi's or JuJu's or whatever they call it, and he looks for women. Not young women old women. He finds himself a divorced goomare,and she takes him home and gives him a six-pack. I'll tell you what your brother is: he's a welfare woman's gigolo.'
I know what goomare means. Means godmother. But it can also mean mistress. The Italian kind of mistress. The kind who sneaks you out her back door with half a hard-on and an aluminum pan of lasagna. That's how Big Dan says it.
But my father's eulogy cannot tarnish the truth about my brother: he was as even Mayor Longo proclaimed with a key to the city the greatest defensive back and punt returner in the history of Kirby High School. He was, always would be, the `Junkyard Dog', a nickname awarded him as much for his kamikaze head-knocking as for the local fame of our family wrecking yard.
I don't see myself ever growing as raw-boned handsome as Danny Boy. He has it: the prominent Paradiso nose like Big Dan's. Mom calls it Romanesque; I think of it more as the strong beak of a raven. Has the eyes, too: large, dark, almond-shaped like Valentino's, our mother says. Mine are cue-chalk blue. Aye, for the dram of Celtic blood, says Mom. Even so, people can always tell me and Danny are brothers. Maybe the dark brows that always look knotted, that make us appear to be brooding or roiled with gas and cramp.
`The Big Clock,' Big Dan says now, as the city's landmark comes into view. `Our famous Big Clock.'
The clock-tower, an imposing brick structure 250 feet high, is an exact replica of a clock-tower in Southern Italy and, Big Dan always reminds us, a tribute to the early immigrants. `You never heard that, did you, Nunzio?' Dad says, smiling, and now he affects a voice not his own. `"What a city, a Big Clock city, with that famous Big Clock."'
When I shake my head, stumped, Big Dan is pleased. `Willie Loman,' he says. `It's from a play by Willie Loman.'
A sound comes from Danny Boy, barely audible. Maybe gas and cramp. `What was that over there?' Dad says. `The cadaver wake up?'
`Willie Loman,' my brother says with a heavy tongue, `is the salesman in the fucking play, not the playwright.'
`I see,' Dad says, driving south. `And who told you that? A topless professor down the Thirsty Turtle?'
`Oh, Christ,' Danny Boy moans as if fully awake, painfully aware that he is in the Paradiso family tow truck on a muggy summer morning, out searching for a junk car.
`What are you a scholar now?' Dad says. `Who wrote the play then? Who wrote it?'
`Miller.' My brother's lips are so close to the window it would fog if it was cold. `Arthur Miller.'
My father and brother are powder and wick; any stray spark can set the charge. I feel blood warm my ears and something at work in the gut. My legs are in tight, my hands clutching the three brown lunch bags Mom packed for us with our names on them in red magic marker: Big Dan, Danny Boy and Nunzi (with a tiny heart dotting the i). I am small, but smaller still when pressed between my father and brother as they shuttlecock their words over my head.
`That's how much you fucking know, Casanova.'
`And he wasn't talking about our clock, he was talking about the Waterbury clock.'
Big Dan looks as if the judges have scored a round against him. I think of different ways to cleave the silence, to switch the train onto a new rail. Baseball, no. Could trigger a football association, open more scabs. Big Dan is going to blow. Danny Boy is tightening against my shoulder. I can smell beer, aftershave, gasoline, all of it combustible, about to go and so I yell: `Look! Look there!'
A bright banner hanging between lamp-posts. Bold letters spell AMERICA'S RENAISSANCE CITY.
`What's that, Dad? What's that all about?'
Well, Big Dan explains as we clamber into the Puerto Rican South End, we aren't going to dress up as historical ass-holes and assemble on the Green; and no, there will be no feathered masks, no pewter steins of beer, the Italians will not be jousting against the Irish, nor will we get to see Monica Lafontaine's outsized breasts stuffed into a corset. `The Renaissance City' is Saukiwog Mills' new slogan, coined by our mayor Frankie. Mayor Frankie is cleaning up the city, Dad says. The old housing projects are being restored, the parks fixed, dingy architecture scrubbed; the unemployed are being schooled at new trades and the druggies are being flushed out like rats from rice sacks.
`And they're gonna fix the Big Clock, too,' he says. `The famous Big Clock.'
`Why?' Danny Boy stirs again. `What's wrong with the clock?'
`What's wrong with the clock?'
`What's wrong with the clock.'
`The north face. It's been quarter past ten for seven years.'
`That's why I keep coming home so late,' Danny Boy says, nudging me.
`Yeah?' Dad spits out his window. `What the goomare give you for your services last night? Food stamps?'
`Renaissance City,' I say, as we drive past sordid tenements and boarded brick buildings.
Big Dan grows solemn, just drives.
`I'm glad they're fixing up the city, Dad.' I say this while looking for evidence of such an ambitious claim, find none.
`That's right. We're a part of it, too, this Renaissance.'
`You bet your life. Junk? No, not junk, Nunzio. Salvage. We clean up the streets. We pick up the eyesores, all these old wrecks, scrap metal, and we use everything. Every part of it. We're like the Indians were with the buffalo.'
Dad is shrewd, knows I am nuts about Indians. And I like buffalo. But it is still too early in the morning to make the connection between the Paradisos, Jacques Cousteau and the Sioux, or scrap metal and bison and salvation, or even the Renaissance and Saukiwog Mills. I am still trying to figure out just what a renaissance city is; I envision guys in armor with lances, not Mayor Longo refurbishing the clock and increasing the tax base like Dad explains while looking at Danny Boy as if awaiting some contention. But there is no riposte: my brother is dead to the daylight as we fast approach a hilltop that I recognize.
`Okay, boys, stay alert,' Dad says, driving through rusted gates into a roily gray haze, the heat fog of summer. If Ahab wore a baseball cap that said Dr Pepper, Big Dan could pass for an obsessed whaler. `One man's junk, another man's treasure,' he says. `Let's bring her home, boys.'
This is how I remember sunrise on 11 June, 1979.
My father and brother, powder and wick.
And a `73 Pontiac Bonneville I would soon wish we had never found.
WELCOME TO HOLY HILL, USA
To us second- and third-generation Catholics growing up in a dry-rot mill town, it was our Agawam Park, our Disney World. Built high on Maple Hill in the early 1950s, the improbable Biblical shrine was the passion of an Irish judge and evangelist known as the Deacon Michael Flynn. The emigrant from County Kerry, Ireland, claimed to have received a message from God to construct the site. The result was impressive: a 32-foot neon peace cross glowing on the hill and leading travelers toward Saukiwog Mills like a blue beacon on shore. It hovered over the rubble and rust and the new interstate, a Day-Glo crucifix big enough to make itinerant vampires jump off the next exit and never look back at Saukiwog (which many people would tell you was wise).
It was still dawn so the peace cross was electric blue when we approached and the wind rapped and rustled the Day-Glo plastic on its metal frame. Dad fished out a little scrap of paper from his shirt pocket. He read the pencil scratch, confirming our mission.
`A `73 Pontiac Bonneville, boys. Where is she? Where's our buffalo?'
In the fog on the hill I could see a concrete slab and the carved passage:
WHY SEEK YOU THE LIVING AMONG THE DEAD?
`There it is!' I said, pointing out the old blue Bonneville abandoned near the fence. It had some rust on the rocker panels, no tags. Bald tires. And in the rear windscreen, a rubber troll with iridescent hair peering glass-eyed over the trunk.
Dad studied his new acquisition for a moment or two, his eyes breaking down the zinc, the chrome, the ferrous metals, the rims and the condition of the windshield front and rear and the value of the rubber troll. I was more intrigued by the bumper stickers:
THE AYATOLLAH IS AN ASSAHOLA.
A second read: KEEP ON TRUCKIN'.
Danny Boy was out of the wrecker; opening the driver's door of the old junker and spinning the steering wheel hard to starboard. He unbuckled his belt, hissed it through the loops in his jeans, doing a kind of cat's cradle with it, and running it through the wheel and back out the vent window where he tied it to secure the wheels for towing.
While Dad circled the car, inspecting, I walked past a small cement structure that once served as the Holy Hill concession stand and gift store. I could see figures in the mist: used statues long-ago purchased by Deacon Flynn from various churches, which meant they were of varied sizes and designs. Blessed Mary was twice the height of Moses, and The Three Wise Men were from three different statuaries. A plaster marker said they had journeyed from the Orient; they looked more like they had been stolen from Barnum's Museum in Bridgeport.
Walking through hundreds of tiny temples and tombs constructed from factory scrap and upturned soup pots and chicken wire, I came upon a Christian being tortured for his faith: a store mannequin laid out over an electric fireplace log that had short-circuited years before. All within a few acres one could venture through Bethlehem, Egypt and ascend into Moab where my grandmother once, on a long-ago Easter, left a torta di Pasqualina at the feet of the Blessed Mother.
In Egypt, there was an isolated display that told the story of Lot's wife who disobeyed and was turned into a salt pillar. Behind the sign stood a lopsided white concrete block representing salt. I pitied Lot's wife. Not as much for being trapped in a big lump of cement as for being left up here on Maple Hill where there were no maples, and never had been any.
Everywhere lay heavy concrete slabs with equally heavy-handed Biblical imagery: Eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man. And there beneath the passage was an ineptly-carved picture of an eye, an ear and a heart.
Some had said that Deacon Flynn never heard the voice of God as much as he'd heard the voices of slow madness from drinking Sterno during the Depression. But this was the place, the Mecca that at one time had as many as 15,000 people a day visiting from around the country. Now there were no pilgrims, no signs of life just an abandoned Pontiac and the distant sounds of dawn traffic far down on the interstate.
Grown over with mullein and fire weed, Holy Hill USA was not how I remembered it. Mary's arms were busted off at the elbows and someone had spray-painted a pair of lewd nipples on Her; John the Baptist still had his head but no left leg, and he had been broken off his stand; a winged devil creeping up on an innocent angel had been knocked on his back and now stared with cement eyes at the sky, his demonic face sanded smooth by twenty-five winters; and the entombed Jesus, a plaster child mannequin, was missing an arm and half His head. The catacombs that me and Danny once loved to descend into were now roped off as a hazardous area.
What was once a place of solace and pilgrimage and childhood wonder, now made me uneasy. The heat fog seemed to lay heavier around me and for a moment I was lost in Moab.
`Nunzi,' Dad called and I bolted toward the wrecker lights, bounding over miniature temples and mangers, toward the safety of my father's tan uniform. `Hook her up.'
I took pride in being the hook rat. I was small and suited to the task. Dropping to my belly I would ferret under the chassis dragging two large and rusted hooks and rack them on the undercarriage.
`They on good?' Dad always asked, no matter how many times I performed and perfected it. He was, it seemed, always fearful of losing the car on the highway and getting a ticket from the Motor Vehicle Department, an agency he felt was his nemesis.
`They on good?'
`Yes, they're on good.'
`Then check them again, make sure.'
While I was under the Bonneville in gasoline and gravel an odd thing occurred. Perhaps I was spooked by the defaced Jesus, by the mists of Moab, by the whole sickening desecration of the urban shrine, but I thought I heard a voice say something that sounded like, `Dio.'
I went still, one hand on a hook, and I listened.
`Dio,' the voice said again, more distant.
I knew the word. Nonni, my grandmother, used it like a liniment: Dio or Dio Mio', the Italian for My God. And so for a fleeting second I thought of a catechism story of St Francis of Assisi and the voice he heard from above telling him to go repair the ruins of crumbling churches. But why would God send a voice to me, Nunzio Paradiso from the Italian neighborhood, lying in oil beneath a `73 Pontiac? Surely not to go repair crumbling churches. I was not yet a confirmed Christian, and I could barely assemble the Lincoln Log set Big Dan once found in a Renault.
But there was a more disturbing thought down there under the car with me.
The Legend of Deacon Flynn.
According to my mother, the judge who turned to preaching began to deteriorate at a pace with his beloved shrine, and in the late 1960s had disappeared from Saukiwog Mills. Some said he had grown disillusioned and went back to Ireland. But others had another version, one that kids like the Doyle brothers repeated ditty-style in school:
Gather, Kerries and Kerry kin,
This is the story of Deacon Flynn.
They say the ghost of Deacon roams
For he sealed himself in the catacombs.
Our mother said it was just a tale, the story of Deacon Flynn going down into the ersatz catacombs of his beloved shrine and sealing himself inside the plaster walls, block by cinder block, a Christian torturing himself for his faith. I sure didn't want to hear the voices he heard, so I slid out from under the Pontiac and almost knocked my father off-balance.
`Hey-hey!' Dad squirmed. `Easy there, kid.'
`Let's get outta here,' I said.
Danny Boy, himself looking off at the pitiful ruins of Egypt, took a last deep inhale on a Kool, dropped it in the gravel and heeled it out with his work boot. He started off a few steps into the shadows, toying with his zipper.
`What you doing, Danny?' I said.
`Gotta take a leak.'
My brother stood there, hand at his fly. He looked up at the peace cross as if noticing it for the first time, then returned to the tow truck without relieving himself. For the next half-hour's drive, Danny Boy, like the mannequin on the hill, would be a Catholic tortured for his faith.
Somewhere on the stretch of Route 8, parallel to the leaden green Mattatuck River, Big Dan was proffering wisdom again as we towed the junk car away; something about how people drive a car until it expires and they just leave it where it croaked. People did it with washing machines, he said. Record players, pets and other people, too.
`One day a guy looks at his wife and he realizes he's going on old memories. Because the fact of the matter is she's got too many miles on her. She's not the young Dodge he brought home to his mother in 1953. The front-end's out of line, shocks are gone, and her rocker panels are saggin'. So he junks her. Just like that. Junks her, goes shopping for a new ride, a used one, but a little younger model, less mileage. New color. Red, say. And what happens to the old Dodge?'
There was a pithy silence and then Danny Boy said, `I snag her at the Swizzle Stick, for a price.'
He was awake and rapt now, Danny, his hangover having burned off like the dawn fog and he looked past me with a wink. `One man's junk, another man's treasure,' he quoted, stirring the shit fire.
`The food-stamp gigolo!' Dad yelled with sarcastic glee, kept his head turned to look out the rear windshield. `They on good, Nunz? The hooks, they set right?'
We crossed the old trestle and drove through the area that was once the hub of the brass industry but was now being called the Rust Bowl: mill after fallen mill, sitting fallow or already demolished. Piles of dusty brick, steel rods and gutted backsettlements.
`Who would do something like that, Dad, to Jesus and Moses? They broke the Blessed Mother's arms off.'
Dad needed no time to ponder. `That's how people are, Nunzio. They're like those lamprey eels that suck onto a big walleye and keep sucking till the fish is dead, and then they move onto another one. You're going to find out, kid, that in this world, people use up people like they use up cars, then they leave the carcass for lesser animals.'
Then Big Dan sucked his teeth, said, `Hey, but you can't think like that. You got to have faith in people.'
His disclaimer did not soothe me. This lamprey eel philosophy, if it was true, made me fear what lay beyond my twelfth summer, and so I did what I always did whenever fear or uncertainty became too much for my body weight: I repeated the name of Saint Rocco four times, looking down then back up between each incantation. A strange ritual, I confess, but it was my own way to render evil harmless, to put myself at ease. It was a superstition going back to when I was four or five and I first began laying my socks in the shape of a crucifix at the foot of my bed, or leaving a broom in the corner to keep away La Strega, the Italian witch who had come over from the Old Country on a tramp steamer. The ultimate talisman, taught to me by my grandmother and reserved only for close encounters with Il Diavolo was to grip my testicles and count backward from seven in Italian. I was never able to locate this one in my old, hand-me-down copy of Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales, but it existed in my Nonni's household as sure as pickled eggplant.
`What are you doing?' Dad said, suddenly concerned. `You're not doing that tic again.'
`Leave him alone,' Danny Boy said. `He's superstitious about shit.'
`He's got a nervous tic,' Dad shouted back. `They're going to put him in Southbury, he does that in public. They'll throw rocks at him, they'll give him shock treatments.'
`Leave him alone,' my brother said, firm in his role of protector.
Dad let go a breath like clean-jerking the weight of the universe; he often felt like he never got a fair shake. `I got one son with a nervous tic, and one with a bargain-rate dick,' he complained, and he seemed amused by his own little haiku.
`Maybe Mayor Longo will fix Holy Hill, too,' I said hopefully.
`Maybe,' Dad said. `But they'll only ruin it again.'
The north face of the Big Clock read quarter past ten, but on the east face, it was ten minutes to eight and somewhere back in the small park that separated The Little Boot and Lithuania Town, my friends were mourning my loss on a baseball diamond and Monica Lafontaine, sweet thirteen a descendant of the extinct French-Canadian section was walking barefoot and bored down America Street, trolling for adventure.
PARADISE SALVAGE USED PARTS SCRAP METAL REDEMPTION
That's what the big sign said as you drove through the chain-link gate and into our family junkyard: ten acres of old cars spread across a plateau and down into networks of ravines and scrap rows. A bargain-hunter's treasure trove, a dinosaur park of old machines: 1950s Chevys and Buicks with their snarling front grills and lewd bullet-shaped projectiles; battered muscle cars like the Le Mans and the ponies like the `Cuda and old Mustangs; Aerospace fantasies from the 1960s and rococo roadsters from the 1970s; old school buses and vans and totaled Mac trucks packed chockablock against the fence; there was a VW Bug section that looked like a multicolored insect pod, and an exclusive Japanese section; there was even a Woody hearse, black and ominous and bearing the legend Saturday's Children, the name of the rock outfit that restored it before they drove into steel guardrails and decapitated a girl sitting on the drummer's lap. That one was down in the little valley Dad called The Boneyard, a taboo area of fatal wrecks.
Big Dan had found an 8x10 photo of Saturday's Children in the Woody and pinned it up on the office corkboard among his collection of polaroids that he took from the junked cars; a black family huddled around a birthday cake, some Puerto Rican guy posing with a sea bass, a graduation photo of some redheaded girl and postcards from people he never knew in places he'd never been. The strange thing was, there were no photos of our family on the corkboard wall. Just strangers who had died in wrecks or had retired their cars in his junkyard.
There was other salvage: the city's last steam engine, retired in 1949, rusted now and used to house secondhand generators. But the feature that set our salvage yard apart from others was the vegetable garden oasis in the middle, lovingly tended by my grandfather, and boasting the biggest, reddest, heftiest beefsteak tomatoes in the city. If our salvage yard was unusual, our routine was steady and disciplined. When Big Dan had stripped a vehicle's carcass of every valuable resource right down to its door locks it went to the open lands out beyond the garage where it was picked clean one more time before the sacrifice on the mantel of The Crusher, the wide-mouthed beast. If the junkyard was a kingdom, as Big Dan had often proclaimed it, then The Crusher was King. Almost something of a family pet, the gargantuan baling machine had gaping jaws of rust and steel, and the heartless, soulless gluttony of a great white shark; like the natives offering a chaste girl to a mythical beast, we made daily offerings of old Pintos and Impalas and wrecked GTOs, mollifying the smoking monster. Invariably, it shut down on Toyotas and Hondas, stalling with compressed scrap wedged in its jaws.
`The Crusher don't like Japanese food,' Big Dan would say as he sprayed starting fluid inside the baler's pipes. As ferocious as our junkyard dog was, when he heard that hydraulic press start up, he slunk panther-pawed into the back of the Wonderbread truck he was chained to, and coiled himself in the shade.
My friends who had visited the junkyard before, held a mythic view of The Crusher. They always scrunched their noses and grinned at the bold and humorous legend my father had spray-painted across the machine's yellow body:
Excerpted from Paradise Salvage by John Fusco. Copyright © 2002 by John Fusco. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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