THE MEASURE OF GOODNESS
If you were flying in a plane over Rosary, California, the first thing you’d see is me, a skinny white girl with messy hair and a big backpack, waving you on. “Keep going,” I’d say. The second thing you’d see, on an afternoon when school was just out and the wind was starting to shift, would be teenagers closing in on a tire yard like bits of metal pulling to a magnet. Until we were all gathered there, negative and positive, and jumping from the force of being near each other.
If I told you a Genesis story fit for our teenage congregation, it would be just the opposite of the church-and-the-steeple rhyme my mom used to tell, her fingers the multitude gathered for worship. Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the door, and see all the people. In this version, the tire yard is the church and the best rhyme for “steeple” is “deep hole.” In this version, you go in when the doors open, and you let them close behind you. As your eyes adjust to the gloom, you see all the Dickheads. And that doesn’t rhyme at all.
Mo’s brother, Tucker, started working at Fast Eddie’s Tire Salvage two summers ago. Then he started working late. Then he started hanging out later and drinking Fast Eddie’s beer. And the rest of us followed. Tucker begat Mo, Mo begat Bird, Bird begat Cy and Sissy and everyone else stupid enough to have a crush on him. Which would be me. My name is Helen. The Dickheads call me Hell.
So, which came first, the Dickheads or their girls? Which came first? Beer. The beer begat us all. Bespat us. It called our names. And we came running, flying, climbing fences, breaking curfews, spilling rhymes. Here are the Dickheads going nowhere, here are the Dickheads making dares.
We dared each other at first just to drink the beer, then to drink more beer, then to get the beer. More beer. Then we dared each other to do more of all the things we want to do but don’t dare on our own. We got drunk together over and over again until getting drunk together became something. Until we became something. And on one of those early evenings as the light in Rosary was fading, back in the early days when the glow from those first beers still warmed us all the way home, we were christened. Sissy said, without thinking, maybe, “See you dickheads tomorrow.” And it stuck, hard. Like we’re stuck, here with each other. The best and worst of everyone we know, doing what we must but shouldn’t, becoming who we are and always will be. Without thinking, maybe.
Rosary’s skyline is a graveyard. A line of crosses and bell towers march on forever, each taller than the last. It turns out that size does matter, and so Rosary’s founders created an ordinance allowing no structure within city limits to have a higher reach than God’s, as represented by the tallest of the many church steeples erected in His honor. And none does. Except the refinery. Rosario Bay Oil Refinery is exempt from the ordinance because it was here first and because without it, none of Rosary exists. The refinery has a pole rising from its center, higher than any of its smokestacks, which burn all day and all night over the crosses below. A red light flashes at the very top, warning planes away. It blinks there, far above it all, like a message left by God Himself that no one has bothered to check.
The city of Sky is Rosary’s closest neighbor, just across a miles-long bridge built over the soggy delta and the bay, and it has a real skyline, jagged with buildings competing for the light. Sky also has real movie theaters and real schools. It has the real internet. And real scientific facts. In Rosary, the internet is policed, so we read our porn from books like the ancient peoples did. And in Rosary, dinosaurs and man lived together at the same time and fossil fuels aren’t any of our concern. If the ice caps are melting, that is God’s plan.
Get thee behind me, Science.
My dad is a member of the Council for the Peaceful Reconciliation of Rosary and Sky and it is worth noting that everyone on the council is from Rosary. In an effort to bring new business into Rosary, to bring any business into Rosary, the council sends letters to hopeful prospects from Sky and cities like it, explaining why the businessperson in question is being invited. I’ve seen these on our computer at home. They read stiff, the way no one talks. It’s kind of like porn, really, because you can’t believe anyone is going to take a come-on like this seriously. Except in porn, the come-on works. All the lonely, unlikely sex god has to say is hello, and the next thing you know there is a bra on the lampshade. But no legitimate business is jumping into bed with the City of Rosary, especially with an invite like this:
I would like to officially inform you that we hereby invite you, the following individual, Mr. Boreal, to visit Rosary to attend the biannual seminar, entitled, “Dr. Baker’s Scientific Efforts on Faith and the Big Bang,” to be held in Rosary, CA, by the Council for the Peaceful Reconciliation of Rosary and Sky. We would be honored by your participation at our conference, given your work with the Sky Observatory and its resulting tourism.
The conference will also invite other scholars from various fields to participate in this event. We have appreciated the work you have done and sincerely feel that your participation will contribute to the success of this conference.
The Council will pay in full for room, board, transportation, and your other sundry expenses in service of the Peaceful Reconciliation of Rosary and Sky.
The Reconciliation Council’s learning curve, if I’m being generous, is as flat as my chest. There is not a soul in Sky, saved or damned, who doesn’t choke with laughter at these letters, who doesn’t immediately toss them in the trash or the shredder. Sky is done with turning the other cheek. Has had it up to here. The bridge is burned. The ship has sailed. There are no metaphors left for all the ways that Sky is done with Rosary’s bullshit.
I was just a kid during the election that created the first rip in the seams of this country, this county, even in some families. And with every election that came after, we the people unraveled. The leaders of Rosary stepped right up like they’d been waiting for just such an opportunity and set about joining church and state while separating the rest of us based on race and sexual preference and other things that make them wet their pants with fear. After years of lawsuits from the City of Rosary on the supposed behalf of “minors taken advantage of by the irresponsible availability of unnecessary elective medical procedures in Sky,” the city no longer welcomes any of us. Sky finally found a way to give Rosary a taste of its own medicine, by telling us who they think belongs. And who doesn’t. Rosary citizens can’t go to Sky for any of life’s basics—birth control or an R-rated movie, even if you are seventeen, not for anything at all. Not unless we have a fake ID with a Sky address on it. Or are in documented medical distress.
Believe me, we all try to document our distress around here as carefully as we can. Only, maybe not in the ways you would think.
The bulb is bare and hot to the touch. It’s old-school, the shape of a cartoon idea, and throws a brighter kind of light than the new ones that last forever and won’t burn the house down. There is no hiding before it. And that’s good. Mistakes are made in the shadows.
“Your only job,” Tucker says when I sit down, “is to hold still and not block the light.”
Then he unwraps a needle. He makes a big show of pulling the wrapper open, the way he’s done with each of the wrappers already empty under his table. Sterility is a sign of his professionalism. I’m the third to sit here tonight, to take off my shirt or pull up my sleeve or turn the chair around and lean over it with my pants down. Now it is my turn to look at the wall and pretend to study the old map hanging there because I am so bored and I feel no pain.
Tucker dips the needle into black ink, our only option, and as the needle touches the soft skin of my forearm, the motor of his homemade tattoo machine whirs out a word into my skin that is copied from my mother’s own handwriting.
It starts with a looping l, bent on leaving.
I feel pain.
The motor sounds like those in the sewing machines lining the tables in home economics at Rosary High. It’s a gray noise underneath plastic, faint and determined.
Next, an o.
I am not bored.
Then, a comma. Not unlike those that God supposedly favors in place of a period. Not unlike their reminder to take a breath and carry on.
But this noise is not the one we are used to hearing. The sewing machines with Rosary High girls bent over them—the way our sisters and mothers bent over them before, making the same aprons, napkins, place mats, tablecloths—that sound is the sound of the past.
The sound of Tucker’s motor is the sound of the future, with a capital F and a capital U.
Tucker saved money from two Rosary summers slinging tires at Fast Eddie’s to buy the parts for this tattoo machine and for secret trips to Sky’s tattoo shops to watch and learn. And then he took off. Whenever he sneaks home to visit, he posts up at Fast Eddie’s, and so long as we pay for the ink and let him take pictures when he’s done, our tattoos are free. Dickhead discount.
He dips the needle. Starts the second word.
A small p.
This is all completely illegal, of course. Because Tucker can’t get a license here.
A little e.
And because we’re teenagers.
A little t and a.
The very last thing we have control over is our own bodies.
A little l rising up, like a sail caught in a wind.
Copyright © 2019 by Tupelo Hassman