The Best People in the World

BOOK: The Best People in the World
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The Best People in the World

A Novel

Justin Tussing

For my parents

T
hey had a tiny rental car and accordion-style foldout maps.

They reached the house of the girl who cried glass tears. This was in Brazil. The cardinal met them in a dirt-floored front room. He had shaky, liver-spotted hands. He unfolded a handkerchief to show them the colorless gems. The older of the two men tucked the handkerchief into the breast pocket of his suit. He kissed the cardinal's hand. Where was the girl? She was resting in a back bedroom. They asked if they could see her.

She owned a plain, suffering face. Mirthless. Was she a virgin? the younger man asked. Unquestionably. And who had discovered the tears? The girl's mother. The men looked around. She was easy to spot, black brocade dress, wooden crucifix around her neck. The rosary would be somewhere nearby. There, on top of the dresser. Where was the husband? At work? Yes. The older man got down on his knees at the bedside of the girl.

“Have you had any visions?” he asked her.

There was a subtle shift. Yes, she'd had visions.

He asked her to tell him what she'd seen.

“She's been visited by the Holy Virgin twice,” said the cardinal.

The older man raised a hand and the cardinal took a step backward.

“Twice, the Blessed Virgin,” said the girl.

“Allow me,” said the older man. He reached up and touched her eyes. Beside her tear ducts he found knots of hard scar tissue.

He leaned over and kissed her on her forehead. He stood up. “Please,” he said, “I must be alone with the girl.” The mother lingered, but when the younger man took her arm, she submitted. The older man shut the door so he was alone with the girl. He went back to her bedside. He stroked her arm.

“Do you know why I'm here?”

“You're here to see the miracle.”

He nodded his head. “Please,” he said. He got himself a chair and set it beside her. “When you are ready.”

The girl watched him for an instant. Then, almost imperceptibly, her lids descended. It appeared as though she were having a dream. Her eyeballs traced shapes on the backs of her eyelids. A dew of sweat bloomed on the pale hairs of the girl's upper lip. Then an indelicate lump appeared in the corner of her right eye. With his thumbnail the older man coaxed it out, a piece of glass, as large as a kernel of corn.

“Thank you,” said the man. “Can you do it again?”

It took a few minutes, but soon another piece of glass appeared. The old man gently harvested it.

The girl's scalp was damp. It shone beneath her hair.

“Can you do that a third time?”

The girl nodded her head. She bit her lip. It took a very long time. Snot ran from her nose. But, eventually, a third piece of glass was produced.

“Extraordinary,” said the man. He handed the girl her tears. “You can put them back now.”

She shook her head.

“Your mother put them in for you?”

The girl gave him the smallest signal. It was enough.

He made the cross on her forehead.

When he left the room, the girl was soaking herself with tears.

The two men got back in their car, the younger man behind the wheel.

“I had hope at first,” said the younger man.

“Her face was much more convincing than the tears,” said the older man. “It was not easy for me to dismiss it. It would be a great burden to be a saint. But what we thought we saw was just the shape of her shame.” He rolled the window down, took the handkerchief from his pocket, and shook it outside the car.

They continued toward the capital.

1

1972

I looked up and saw my father standing at the foot of my bed. “Get up,” said Fran. “Rise and shine.” He went to the window and lifted the shade. He had a fragile-looking nose, which was my nose. “Do you have to wear your bangs so long?” Fran asked.

I walked over to the dresser, where the clothes I'd set out the night before waited on the red enamel top.

“Now we're talking,” said Fran. “Now we're making some progress.”

“Are you going to do this every day?” I asked.


Every
day? Come on. Be fair.”

I got my clothes on.

Fran said, “Say good-bye to your mother.”

I poked my head in their darkened bedroom. Mary turned toward me, but couldn't force her eyes to open. “Have fun,” she said.

“I wish I was still mowing lawns,” I said.

Fran wouldn't permit me to duck into the bathroom. They had a bathroom where we were headed.

A moment later I found myself behind the wheel of my father's cornmeal yellow Buick. It was important I know how to drive when tired, Fran believed. I backed us down the driveway and into the road. “You didn't look first,” said Fran. He was right. “Well, forget it.
Look next time.” Fran didn't want the little things to impede the larger mission. He was in the process of introducing me to something momentous. The driving lesson was distinct from the mission. This was a Monday morning late in June. We were on our way to work. Having just completed my sophomore year of high school, I was to begin training for a summer job as a subsystem technician at Western Kentucky State Power. Fran worked as an operations comptroller at the plant. Neither of us had a clue what a subsystem technician did. What we knew was that I would be compensated at a rate slightly below what I had received the summer before. But mowing lawns was not a job. Getting a tan was not a job. Being somewhere on time, doing what was expected of you, not loafing, that was a job.

“Remember,” said Fran, “a job is a privilege, not a right. You have to show up every day and do your best and not settle for good enough. Good enough is a trap.”

Fran would make the same before dawn drive through seventeen more summers, but never again with me. And then one morning he wouldn't get up and I would drive all day, arriving just after dusk, to find Mary shivering on the front steps. She would ask me if I remembered the summer Fran and I went to work together.

“Are you jazzed?” asked Fran.

I said, “I'm jazzed.”

“Yeah, you are.”

A rabbit dashed across the road. Fran grabbed my arm to ensure I stayed my course. Somehow the animal avoided being killed. Paducah, Kentucky, had a rabbit problem. It was sort of picturesque, brown bunnies huddling beneath each shrub. But they also injected a sense of the tragic into the everyday. You were constantly coming across their flattened corpses, crows nagging at the broken bodies. The summer before, I had run over a nest of baby bunnies with a mower. It was completely depressing. Fran insisted the floodwall made the rabbit problem worse.

People were always finding fault with the Army Corps of Engineers. Like how our river town didn't have a river view anymore. The wall was so monotonous, it was almost Soviet. But the thing that
really drove people crazy was that the Ohio River neglected to test it. The wall stood poised, an army without an opposition.

Fran had me turn onto Pemberton Street, which passed through the Pemberton Street Sally Port—“sally port” was the name the engineers gave to the gaps in the wall; if the river ever came up, reinforced steel plates could be slid into the gaps and the town made watertight. Outside of town I had to pay attention because Pemberton ran on top of a levee. Tire scars in the slope marked where daydreamers had left the road.

Fran was looking toward the river. “Pull over,” he said.

It was mostly scrubland; huddled stands of cottonwood and ash made islands on the floodplain.

“You see that?” He rolled his window down so I could follow his pointing finger.

In the middle of acres of nowhere bottomland stood a little shack, an outpost in the slough grass. It was a wonder he saw the place at all. The harder you looked at it, the less evident it became. Like a shadow, it was more about its edges than its substance.

“The king of the river rats is back,” said Fran.

A river rat was an expression used to denote a person with low prospects. There were river-rat neighborhoods and river-rat taverns. If someone annoyed him, Fran might say, “You know, that river rat so-and-so.”

But I'd never heard of the king of the river rats. I thought maybe Fran was pulling my leg.

“That's how I think of him—Shiloh Tanager.”

I didn't know Shiloh, but I knew about him. Supposedly, as a baby, he'd been abandoned on the limestone steps of the police station. He'd run away from orphanages and foster parents and everybody else. People claimed he could make a radio from a battery and a twist of wire. He'd been in knife fights and shovel fights. Using block and tackle, he recovered a Civil War cannon from the river's muddy banks. The public schools served as a reliquary for stories about Shiloh Tanager. He had been known to ride railcars, associate with criminals, elude the police. But it had been a couple of years since
anyone had seen him. Some people said he was dead. There was a persistent rumor about some kid who knew some kid who had come across his stinking bones.

“How do you know it's his place?”

Fran turned to me. “Can you think of someone else who'd want to live out here?”

From our perspective it was impossible to know if anyone was living there at all.

“Anyway, it's about dead smack center where his old place used to be,” said Fran. “Time's up. We can't spend the day gawking. We're workingmen.”

I steered the car back onto the road. “I hope I like my job,” I said.

Fran didn't have anything to add.

In the distance I could make out the solitary smokestack of the power plant. A red strobe warded off airplanes.

2

Sump

Formerly I'd considered electricity an essentially noble force. As a subsystems technician I learned it was inseparable from the diesel stink of the frontloaders racing to relocate mountains of coal, from the buzzing of the transformers, from the turbine's pervasive whirr.

For the protection of the workers all catwalks and access tunnels were shielded with a pliable steel mesh. In the building's lower levels a constant humidity was quickly turning the mesh into rust. Orange-red dust settled on everything; if I brushed against a handrail, it painted a mark on the chambray jumpsuits the plant provided me with. The other thing the plant provided were rubber gauntlet gloves. The gloves were supposed to prevent you from inadvertently becoming an electrical pathway, but everyone wore them looped over the belt of their jumpsuits.

There were twenty-six critical measurements I needed to record hourly on a clipboard. Another dozen non-critical indicators needed to be confirmed at the beginning and end of every shift. The route I
followed had been carefully calibrated to eat up exactly one hour. But I discovered that by jogging, I could take all my measurements in under forty minutes, leaving twenty minutes unaccounted for.

Off the main service passage, down three stairs and through a heavy door, I discovered a sunken room. In the center of the room, three identical motors lined up, side by side, beside a low guardrail. On the other side of the guardrail, the floor fell away. The motors looked like cattle coming to a trough to drink. From each engine a single pipe descended into the darkness. This was the sump room. Between my rounds, I would lie down amid the machines and take a catnap. I would prop my feet on the rail and close my eyes. The vegetable heat of the place and the dull humming of the machinery lulled me to sleep. When I woke up I'd jog about the building taking another set of readings. Sometimes I'd sleep for fifteen minutes and sometimes I'd drop off for an hour. And, because it was the design of things that each technician worked independently of every other, there wasn't much chance that someone would stumble across me.

Of course, I started thinking about girls. Living in close quarters with my parents and Pawpaw, there wasn't much use dwelling on girls, but here I was unobserved. And since I had already made peace with sleeping on the job, it wasn't a big step to more unprofessional behavior.

Western Kentucky State Power wanted me to walk the corridors, double-check my readings, and keep my eyes open. I was supposed to keep to my assigned area and keep my hands off things unless they were things that I was supposed to put my hands on. This was for my safety. And there I was leaning against the railing with my eyes closed and sometimes my knees would buckle and, for a moment, it would seem like I was going to pitch forward into that black pit.

 

On a blistering day in August, as Fran piloted us across the levee, he said, “Don't be embarrassed, but you're going to have to start using some sort of deodorant.” He turned his head toward me.

Something in his voice told me he'd been putting off this conversation for a while.

“A spray or a stick. Not the roll on. They pull the hairs.”

I blushed with the shame that came from smelling bad and from all the time I'd been spending in the sump room.

“It comes in different scents, pine, mint, forest, ocean, musk. Just pick something out. It doesn't matter which. Or have your mother choose. She can probably tell you what smells best from a woman's point of view.”

I was relieved when he finally stopped talking.

“And don't think you can start skipping showers. It's no substitute for soap and water.”

 

After all the time I spent in the sump room meditating on girls, I started to believe in the existence of real girls. Since they weren't going to show up at my parents' house, I thought I'd go looking for them. Every chance I got I'd wander down to the brick plaza in front of town hall. The place was practically designed for girls, with rosebushes and hydrangeas and birds singing in trees that looked like lollipops. There were benches everywhere, but hardly ever any people. The floodwall prevented the pleasant breezes that kicked off the river and which had been the town's birthright. Since you couldn't watch the river anymore, the only thing to look at was the vintage Mercury patrol car parked directly across from the police station. The hulking cruiser crouched over the bricks, all gleaming chrome and bottomless black paint.

BOOK: The Best People in the World
6.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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