Nobody in Grim Barge could quite tell you what it is Stub does. All anyone can agree on is, it’s certainly not legal, but it’s not exactly bad either. It’s not that Stub is secretive. Everybody knows you can find him from 3 every evening to 2 every morning, lounging around the Blue Tip Saloon. He drinks with the other regulars, and makes jokes, and tells a story about a very big fish he caught once, with human teeth. It’s his customers that are secretive. In fact, it might not even be right to call them customers. All that happens is, about two or three times a day, never at quite the same times, guys come into the saloon and give Stub their money.
When they come in to give him the money, there’s no conversation. Stub takes the money without counting it and puts it in a drawstring bag that used to hold a bottle of Crown Royal whisky, and says “thanks.” Sometimes he smiles a dumb little smile. Then whoever brought him the money goes out.
Most of the guys who come in for Stub are strangers. Sometimes the guys are from around town. If you try to ask them what the money’s for, they’ll say something like “I owed him for a pizza”, or “he won it off me in a bet.” But it happens every day, and sometimes the wads of bills seem pretty thick. Nothing bad’s ever happened to anyone who came in and gave Stub money. Maybe that’s why they do it.
Stub’s an okay pool player – only competitive by virtue of how much time he spends hanging around the table. He rarely wins because he doesn’t have the cleverness to pull off a complicated shot. When one of his opponents scratches, he has a way of picking up the cue ball so that it seems to disappear into his meaty fist. They’re surprisingly large, those fists.
Overall, Stub’s a decent guy – anyone in Grim Barge would tell you the same. He’s a little simple and he drinks a little more than maybe’s good for him, but he’s never hurt a soul. And for that reason we’re all of us sort of thankful his payments keep coming in, whatever they are. Because he’s never hurt any of us, and maybe those payments are keeping it that way.
Maya Rios takes care of people. Always has. Maybe it’s a function of being the firstborn in a litter of seven, with parents too busy taking extra shifts at the restaurant to take care. That would be the standard explanation. The more likely explanation is impatience.
Maya never seems impatient. She has taught three children of her own to walk, and talk, and poop in the proper receptacle. She waits in pediatrician’s offices, on soccer sidelines, in airports for airplanes that will take her to visit her aging parents, who she also takes care of now. Her apparent serenity comes from the fact that she is never waiting on another person’s decision. The decision is always hers.
The only place her impatience bubbles to the surface is in the online poker games. No one in her real life knows she plays. One of her brothers introduced her to the idea, and Maya scolded him until he promised never to play such foolish games. She plays in the grey hours of the morning, while her house sleeps. There is no risk of her husband or children waking up and surprising her; she is everyone’s alarm. It is just as well. They would not recognize her if they saw.
As she waits her turn to call or raise or fold, her lips maintain a constant snarl. Her decision has been made for minutes now, and waiting for the others only delays her inevitable victory. She chews her lips as she waits for the new cards to be dealt, daring the random number generator to defy her.
Maya has netted hundreds of thousands of dollars on these illegal poker tables. Her username is a legend, and some servers even ban it. She uses the money to give her children the life she wishes she’d had, and lets her husband think he makes enough to pay for it. Why shouldn’t he believe her? After all, she takes care of all the bills.
On the Road of Weeds, two thirds of the way to Old Knife City, a rushing river severs the cobbled road. Across the gash runs a bridge of unmortared stones, taken from the water before the current claimed their harsh edges. On the apron of cool, mossy silt beneath the bridge, which spills into the water like the roll of fat above the belt, Covits waits.
Many years ago a man named Covits took residence beneath the bridge, and the same spirit animates this body. But this body no longer resembles a man’s. The nails are long, the hair is gone, with scales to take its place. The teeth are points for ripping fish-flesh, and the eyes are hooks for dragging travelers down.
Most walkers on the bridge never see Covits – not unless he is hungry, and the tide is too low to offer fish – and so he does not meet the legal definition of a Bridge Troll. What brought him here, then? What spiritual dividend does this vigil pay? Well, Covits has perfected just one virtue, and that virtue is patience. He understands that a single act can validate a life, provided it is executed at the proper time. And so Covits waits beneath the bridge, and will keep waiting, for the traveler who truly deserves to be stopped.
The left wall of Nervin’s cubicle is covered in cat posters, and pictures of his adopted parents. The right wall is covered in evidence of the great big world out there – National Geographic posters, the flag of Ecuador, a twenty-euro note. In the center, there is nothing but his monitor, his keyboard, and a glass of water. That bareness in the center is what gave me my first clue about Nervin.
I’d misjudged him when he started, because of how we’d sit and stare stupidly at lunchtime – at the same table physically, but miles away mentally. At least that’s what I thought. I interpreted his silence as ignorance, the slurping of his soup as tactlessness. But most of all it was his stare. I’m ashamed to admit I’d made up my mind about Nervin before he even sat down at our table that first day.
But as the cublicles around Nervin’s emptied, and his expanded, I realized I was the fool. Cover up the outer eyes- look only at the third. That’s where he keeps his focus. The other eyes, and that lolling tongue – he’s eating the world; digesting it into information. Now, at lunch, I sit far away from Nervin. But I still feel his eyes. Tasting.
Every principal in the district knows about Annie Lebec, but rank and file teachers hear only rumors. A girl who stabbed the boy in front of her eleven times with a pencil. A girl who gave her teacher an apple full of spider eggs. A girl who could read, and write, and do arithmetic remarkably well for her grade level, or in fact any grade level, but who turned in old food instead of homework. A girl who argued, repeatedly, that George Washington was a “ninny who would have been nothing without my help.” The teachers tell these stories until the wounds received are wrapped in the armor of legend, and agree that there is no way these could all be the same girl. The stories span generations, and Annie is careful to always change her hair, and her voice, and her mannerisms.
Annie is over 300 years old, and this will be her third decade of first grade. Her favorite assignments are punitive, but those are few and far between. Not many principals can afford her service for such petty ends. More often, she is brought in in an instructive capacity. She is the foreign exchange student with behavioral issues – clearly brilliant, but with only rudimentary English. She is the dark outsider whose parents must surely be abusing her. She is the jubilant and screaming abuser. Through her expert misbehavior she teaches techniques that can only be learned through experience, and all the students who follow seem mild by comparison.
By far the most common assignment Annie receives, however, is redemptive. Not redemptive of herself, or of her teachers – though these can be components of her method – but redemptive of the art and craft of teaching. You see, when a teacher rescues a child from her own apathy, or illiteracy, or autism, or cruelty, they feel again that altruistic spark that lead them to select a vocation both underpaid and underappreciated – to tolerate long hours and shifting standards and uncharitable oversight. Yes, it turns out the antidote to these ills is not to make them better, but to make other things worse. Annie plays the other things with gusto. She breaks herself and lets them fix her, and so restores their faith in fixing others.
Ida – for that is what the loud creatures which visit her pasture call her – is a machine for turning grass into milk and protein. She is a good machine – large, even-tempered, not prone to mechanical malfunctions. The creatures which visit look into the heavy brown marbles of her eyes and twist the corners of their mouths upwards in a way that suggests they are attempting to mimic a similar expression percieved on Ida’s face, though this perception must be erroneous; her face is not currently outfitted to produce such an expression.
These creatures claim to have “found” Ida, as if the things in this field did not exist until the creatures touched them with their eyes. They made a great fuss over her – did not “recognize” her, though she knew she bore the marking on her hindquarters common to all her peers. Some days passed, and they named her “Ida” and seemed to accept her. They make no more fuss; she is integrated.
The organism or organisms that comprise Ida are many thousands of years old, though the form which bears the name “Ida” has only been around for three months. Each molecule of Ida is a machine for turning itself into anything else. Her teeth are indistinguishable from teeth. Her guts are indistinguishable from guts. Her brain is indistinguishable from brain, though it does not dream in the way cows dream. Most of Ida’s thinking is done elsewhere in the body, distributed evenly among molecules.
The molecules admire the grass, seeing in it a kindred spirit. They marvel at mouths – these crude multipurpose appendages for sensing and expressing and consuming. They ache with excitement: to find the purpose of all this milk and protein they are inventing. To discover what it means to be “butchered.” To be disintegrated, as they are meant to be disintegrated, and to meet the many mouths of hungry Earth.
Jared Moore is the best dishwasher Cindy’s Diner’s ever had. They know he’s good, but they don’t know just exactly how good he is, because they don’t know how much effort it takes Jared not to crush the dinnerplates in his massive hands. Jared has god’s blood – filtered down through the ages, but hard to dilute – and it makes his skin iron and his muscles hydraulic. Jared doesn’t know this. He can’t trace his genealogy back more than two generations. All he knows is that when he was nine he liquefied the cat’s head instead of petting it, and mashed the carcass down through a storm gutter for fear of consequences.
The pots and pans in Jared’s kitchen are always gleaming. No encrustation of burnt sauce or hardened fondue chocolate is too tough for his steel-wool fingers. The real trick is making sure he doesn’t scrape through the stainless-steel bottoms. His great bulk makes every movement seem slow and cumbersome, but the front of house is always stocked with clean dishes and silverware.
At the end of the night, Jared walks two miles home to his apartment, where he makes himself dinner. He eats eggs – poached, over-easy, deviled, basted, but never scrambled. He cracks them in one hand, with the barest touch of his broad thumbnail. He waters his many plants with a porcelain pitcher. He feeds his cat. Then he sleeps, and dreams of being a hero in a time where strength was treasured.
Jared isn’t unhappy. His life isn’t a prison. The opposite, actually. At any moment, Jared could tear his apartment building down around him, leap into the street, throw cars and snap necks and bring the city to its knees. The choice Jared makes each moment not to do this; that is true freedom.
Roger has five fingers on each hand, and two eyes. He has skin. He wears clothes that cover his skin. His fingernails grow at the usual rate. He has the same number of feet as he has legs, which is two. His heart beats often, causing his blood to circulate. Yes, Roger is in every way an ordinary human person.
Roger is not from this city. He was born in a different city, where his family and anyone else who might have known him for more than two years must surely live. Now he lives in an apartment, alone. The apartment has a kitchen and a bathroom, as well as a bedroom. He uses all of these, for their intended purposes.
Roger works in a glue factory. He does not take unseemly pleasure in the deaths of horses. His job is to scalp the horses that are dead. It is an unremarkable, even tedious job. Roger often talks on the phone. In these conversations he is mostly silent. Occasionally he says the names of colors, such as “black,” or “red” or “dark red.” They are ordinary colors, as might be found in a box of crayons.
Roger is not a spy. He is not from another planet. He is not a creature wearing a human skin, or else we are all creatures wearing a human skin. He is not planning anything. He is not informing anyone. He is not going anywhere. He is nothing. He is not important. Don’t worry about it.
Gerlyn runs Mimi’s bakery and coffee shop on 133rd, and she’s seen to it that no one will ever trace the revolution back to her. Even so, it wouldn’t do to call her paranoid, or even careful. She mixes her doughs and batters by smell and touch and memory, and the kids who help her out in exchange for free cakes have to learn to do the same. But her carelessness is meticulous. The smartest of them will notice this some day, many years down the line, when they have already done what she is training them to do.
All the kids come to Gerlyn for advice because she’s older than them, plus since she has no kids of her own she’s not likely to be mixed up in any of their squabbles. She doesn’t give advice, though. She asks questions. When she likes the answers, she smiles and hums and asks more questions. When she doesn’t like the answers, she stays silent until the silence builds up so heavy her victim has to say something else to squirm out from under it. Then she asks more questions.
She’s never told the kids about her philosophy, but somewhere in their hivemind it is known, extracted carefully from her silences and shared from peer to peer. Gerlyn does not believe in rules any more than she believes in recipes, does not believe one should be punished for breaking them. She believes that the worst thing a human being can do is place themselves above any other. She believes in paying one’s way through hard work, but she doesn’t believe in paying – no one pays for the baked goods at Mimi’s unless they’re strangers who don’t know any better. Most of all – and this she does say, and often – she believes that if you see something broken, it’s your job to fix it, no matter who broke it.
She teaches them these things, and she teaches them to work. To prepare ingredients, to flatter customers, to order food, clean floors, and keep books. Nothing she teaches them is illegal. It doesn’t have to be. Anyone with internet access can learn to make a bomb, or pick a lock, or set a fire. The thing that takes teaching is the willingness to do it. The revolutionary mindset. That, not coffee or cakes, is Gerlyn’s primary product.
The Right Reverend Rebus Fallon is always sweating. Not buckets, not enough for anyone else to really notice, but enough to make his high forehead shine in the light streaming through the stained glass windows on a Sunday morning. The sweat is his aura, it is an extra stratum of skin. Even in winter, he sweats. He sweats and he shivers.
Rebus is not unhealthy. At fifty one years old he still runs the charity half-marathon to end bone cancer every year. His times are competitive. He doesn’t snore, his knees never bother him, and he’s raised two daughters and a son well enough to send off to college. The reverend is, the doctors tell him, in remarkably good health for his age, which he assumes means he’s doing something right.
What Reverend Fallon doesn’t tell the doctors is that he can see God. Any time he can see the sky, there’s God – sitting slump-shouldered on a cloud or lounging in the crescent of the moon. God is black in the daytime and white at night, and He is the reason Rebus sweats.
You see, Rebus can see God, but only see. God never speaks, never claps His hands or shrugs His immense shoulders. He simply looks, and not always at Rebus. Some days God will look at a hummingbird, or a derelict tractor. Sometimes God looks at nothing.
But Rebus, Rebus always looks at God. During sermons especially. He sends his words up through the stained glass windows, and smiles a smile he hopes will be returned. The churchgoers sit transfixed, they eat up his words, but he speaks for an audience of one. He searches his Master’s face for any sign of an opinion. He craves the nod, but dreads the head-shake.