14: Chaucer

Every morning, the cats of Walnut street gather around the door of 1228 and wait for Chaucer to appear. Sometimes he comes from an upper story window. Sometimes he squeezes out from beneath the house’s foundation. There was a time when the cats didn’t have to wait, back before the owners boarded up the cat door, but now Chaucer’s appearance to his followers is entirely contingent on an arms race between him and the plywood boards rapidly accumulating over every possible exit. He will not be thwarted so easily.

Chaucer is not a beautiful cat. He rarely eats, and his ribs look as if they’re trying to press themselves out through his patchy dark grey fur. He’s missing an ear, and his eyes water constantly. They water because of the visions. Chaucer, being a cat, has no way of communicating his visions to his followers, but there is a shared understanding that the visions occur, and that they are accurate. Every morning, when Chaucer finally struggles out of some tiny crack in his owners’ defenses, he pauses for a moment and surveys his adherents. They stare back at him, their eyes unblinking so as not to miss a potential moment of insight. In his stillness they see a confidence born of clairvoyance.

Before the owners boarded up the cat door, the den of the apartment was the seat of bliss. Cats would gather from all over the neighborhood to commune with Chaucer. Strays would bring him gifts of dead mice. Females in heat would walk miles to present themselves to him. And in return, he would grant them the understanding that he knew something, something perfectly, mysteriously true. Now, all he can do is lead his posse around the neighborhood, guiding them with unerring accuracy to every rathole, bird’s nest, and richly stocked dumpster in the area. But that is all secondary. The reason the cats gather in front of 1228 Walnut every morning is not so much to gain any specific wisdom, because there is no way that they can. What they crave, what they see every time Chaucer finds a new crevice to slip through, is how a cat even more confined than themselves can remain totally, magnificently free.

13: Robin Littel

Robin Littel would be the envy of every eight-year-old in the world if they knew she existed. She lives in Disneyland. Not just near Disneyland, but actually inside the park. She sleeps in Goofy’s bounce house, picks half-eaten corndogs out of the trashcans, and rides the rides all day.

Disneyland for Robin was a peace offering from an absentee father who would show up only long enough to teach her to tie a fisherman’s knot or beat the shit out of her, depending on how drunk he was. But Robin has learned to squeeze a supernatural amount of value out of every transaction, and so she took her one day in Disneyland and she decided to turn it into the rest of her life. There were search parties, of course, and posters, and news crews. Robin laid low behind an animatronic Heffalump in the Winnie the Pooh ride and let the search move elsewhere. She took a hair tie and pulled her red hair all the way back so she wouldn’t look like the posters.

People have always told Robin she looks a bit like goofy. She’s got the long face, and the dangling arms, and the crooked grin. She’s got a snub nose, too, and huge watery eyes. When her clothes get too dirty, she sits in the front seat on the log ride and lets the water wash over her. When she gets lonely, she rides A Small World, or Jungle Cruise. There’s a tour guide on Jungle Cruise who she’s gotten to know, probably the only staff member other than the alcoholic who maintains Goofy’s bounce house who has any idea Robin lives here. Sooner or later she’s going to have to leave. Someone’s going to call the cops, or she’s going to run out of food, or just get bored. But no matter how it all turns out, at least now she knows she can get away.

12: Edward Goto

Edward Goto is a robot. I mean, he has to be, doesn’t he? He can hold his breath longer than any other boy in the fourth grade, and he can go without blinking for like ten minutes. His dog died and he didn’t even cry. He’s too small and skinny to be a real boy; the Japanese are making tiny people robots to send into the mines, that’s why. But Edward must have escaped, or maybe these humans who call themselves his parents stole him from an assembly line. There’s no way to be sure. His memory is corrupted. All he knows is that he must be a robot.

He’s got a robot’s face. His head is an almost perfect rectangle, with sunken cheeks and a square jaw. His eyes are blue, and have a tendency to get stuck. His straight black hair bothers him. He imagines that his “parents” had it implanted in his skull to help him fit in with the real children, but he always gets it buzzed when he visits the barber. Even with the hair, it’s not as if he fits in.

The only time the other students even talk to Edward is when they need help with a math problem. Edward can do complex sums in his head with frightening speed – he once spent a friend’s ninth birthday party pacing back and forth through the den, parsing a string of three-digit numbers one of the other kids asked him to add up. On the playground, he is painfully aware of the optimal trajectory for every ball that comes his way, but his circuitry is faulty and he cannot translate his projections into reality.

No one else believes that Edward is a robot. Even if he tells them, they just laugh. If he’s a robot, they say, he shouldn’t have to eat, or drink, or sleep. He shouldn’t bleed, for that matter. But Edward eats and drinks very little, and as soon as he lies down in bed it seems that it is time to wake up again, and so clearly he does not sleep. As for the blood, well, Edward has always been a very careful robot. He’s never split a lip or skinned a knee. He knows, without a doubt, that all he has to do is prick his little finger and he’ll be able to prove his true nature to all the skeptics. He’s got a sewing needle from his “mom’s” kit in his bedside drawer, and sometimes he takes it out and looks at it in the light of his digital alarm clock. But he can’t go through with it, because what if he’s wrong? Then what’s his excuse?

11: Jackson “T-Bone” Omen

Jackson “T-Bone” Omen is chess wizard in a stocking cap and sideburns. From just after dinnertime to just before bedtime, six days a week, Jackson can be found at the picnic tables in Central Park, hustling chess games with a stupid, honest smile. He doesn’t play with a clock like a lot of the other chessmasters around him. He plays every game to the end, and he never loses. The money he makes off the games keeps him fed, and when business is slow he makes a little extra money reselling knockoff Chinese bike lights and metro daypasses. Hell of a lot better than his old job.

T-Bone used to work for Apple, believe it or not. Boeing after that. He worked seventy-hour weeks, ground his teeth, wore starched shirts that itched constantly. He designed navigation and target acquisition systems for fighter jets. And then one day, while he was trying to meet a coding deadline with one hand and remove an obnoxious tag from his starched shirt with the other, he thought: “Why the hell am I making all these other motherfuckers billionares and meanwhile killing all these other dudes who don’t deserve it?” Then he spilled coffee on himself.

As a hobo, T-Bone has found his bliss. He can stand on the sidewalk at 3:00 in the morning, pissing into a plastic bag. He can walk the streets wearing a Tiki mask and waving a wiffle ball bat, and sometimes the yuppies even give him money for it. And he can actually, measurably help people.

You see, T-Bone is called T-Bone by all the homeless people of Pasadena because of a friendship he’s developed with a certain student at a local cooking academy. The kid came stumbling through Central Park one day lugging four grease-stained plastic bags full of New York steaks and asked T-Bone if he wanted to help out. He said the cooking academy threw out so much food everyday it was disgusting, and asked if T-Bone could get all these steaks to people who would eat them. And now, every other day or so, a whooping crowd of gutterpunks, crackheads, vagabonds and unfortunates crowd around T-Bone’s chessboard as he hands out pecan coated catfish, Chinese BBQ short ribs, beer-braised lamb shanks …

Of course, T-Bone gets help, too. He checks into the local homeless shelter one day out of every month and sits through the mandatory sermon so he can get his hair buzzed by the in-house barber. He gets weed from the blind blues guitarist who sits on a milk crate in front of Jamba Juice. But one thing’s for sure. No one ever made a billion dollars offa giving him a haircut, and  ain’t nobody ever got shot to death by a juicy steak.

10: Margaret Gaines

Margaret Gaines has a face like an appetizer plate at a very fancy restaurant: a lot of blank surface area with a couple of tiny, immaculate features in the center. Her skin is pale, her cheeks are flabby, and she has no chin to speak of. Her lips are so small she could french kiss a Ken doll, and her eyes are beady and black. Her petite ears are hidden under straight black hair that has never been cut for more than twenty dollars. In short, Margaret Gaines has a face made for radio.

It’s a joke she’s been told from an early age, and some part of it must have stuck with her, because radio is where she works now. She has perfect pitch. Better than perfect, actually, because she’s aware of not only the note but the emotional payload it carries as well. She could have been an opera singer. She could have forced tears into the eyes of audiences all over the world. But she isn’t. She’s the single most successful commercial voice actress of all time.

When Margaret Gaines shows up to an audition, the waiting room empties. Everyone knows by now that she will read the lines perfectly on the first try, with such flawless execution that auditioners have been known to run out of the studio and immediately purchase their own products. Every microscopic change of pitch is under Margaret’s conscious control. Every frequency in her voice resonates with a precisely calculated sector of the human mind. When her commercials air, sales explode. She has more money than she knows how to spend.

Of course, Margaret isn’t human. Not entirely. She’s biologically human, certainly, but something of the humanity has been trained out of her. The perfect pitch was hers from the beginning, but it was a psychology professor at her University who – at her request – devised the regimen of voice recordings and hypnotherapy that has made Margaret what she is. Every spare fold of Margaret’s brain is packed with high-quality recordings of pitch, emotion, emphasis. She keeps a day planner religiously because if she doesn’t, details of her life simply slip away. She can go through whole conversations only to realize afterward that she remembers the way the entire conversation sounded in minute detail, but cannot recall a word that was said. She can only go to sleep with the radio on.

Margaret doesn’t live much differently now than when she didn’t have money. She’s not famous, either – it’s in the companies’ best interests to keep it that way. She didn’t undergo two years of therapy with Dr. Pengrove to be rich or famous. She was frustrated with the imprecision of language, the way people can mean one thing and communicate another. But now, she’s starting to teach classes. It’s becoming an industry, the training. And more and more now, as Margaret falls asleep, she can listen to the radio and understand exactly what it wants her to know.

9: Lady Naiak

At this late stage in Lady Naiak’s life, she has progressed from cosmetics to pure architecture. Her hair grows larger and redder each day, even as it diminishes in both quantity and color. Her gowns are padded with the expertly engineered contours of a woman half her age. Her face is so caked with makeup that she might soon be able to walk out of a room and leave it standing there, smiling and conducting the purely symbolic affairs of state for which a queen is responsible.

Lady Naiak wants only one thing: to outlive her husband. She does not hate the king, but she surely does not love him. Their marriage wasn’t about love; she was married off to prevent war between two rival provinces and also – she suspects – to settle a gambling debt. In fact, Lady Naiak is rather skeptical of the whole concept of love. She’s fucked the king, and she’s fucked a number of his knights, too, and on the whole the knights were better fucks than the king. But she never felt anything akin to love for any of them. The only creatures she will admit to loving are her dogs.

Her dogs are three vicious mastiffs that can rip whole deer to shreds between them. Lady Naiak received them as a gift when they were mere pups, and it was assumed that she would forget about them when they stopped being cute and turned violent. But their viciousness has only made them more interesting to the queen, who is denied the constant outlet of aggression afforded to the men of the castle. While the knights murder each other with lances in the field, Lady Naiak placidly watches as her dogs massacre a family of rabbits she has brought them.

She knows the makeup won’t keep her alive. In fact, there are many days when she’s quite certain that it’s killing her. The trick is to convince everyone else that it’s keeping her alive, so that when her husband inevitably goes down to war wounds or alcohol poisoning or siphylis she can smoothly assume leadership. No one wants a queen, but they can be convinced to put up with one as long as she’s not dying. It doesn’t even matter to her how long she rules for. All that’s important is that one of these days, if she just keeps living and breathing and applying the makeup,  she might just get a moment to experience the power she’s spent her whole life next to.

8: Wade Omachi

Wade Omachi has an uneasy smile, as if he’s had to teach himself each contour of it individually. But what he lacks in apparent joviality he more than makes up for in his clothes and manner. When Wade goes out, he wears a ten-gallon hat over his black ponytail, flared bluejeans with a patch of oil paint brush strokes on the front of each thigh, and a paisley necktie with the American flag on it. He greets everyone as if he’s welcoming them to his house, except when he’s actually welcoming them to his house, in which case he’s usually distracted by his work.

Wade is a painter. He paints Los Angeles sunsets that take up his entire canvasses and look like an Amazon rainforest on fire. He was a painter in the 60s, and he was a painter in the 70s, and when his friends all gave up and got real jobs in the 80s, he stuck with it. He supported himself as a stonemason, and those years out in the sun have weathered and darkened and creased his face like an old indian. He’s some percentage Cherokee, to be fair, but who the hell isn’t? When his friends got rich in the 90s, he got rich with them, getting hired to paint murals on mansions and do mosaics around olympic-sized swimming pools. His friends never changed much, they just switched from acid to coke. Wade never changed at all.

When Wade talks, it’s always as if he’s dictating the words from somewhere inside a daydream. He pauses for too long, he drifts from subject to subject, he smiles at things that no one has said. But through sheer persistence he’s become sort of a fixture at his local polling station; he’s volunteered every year since he moved to the precinct in ’89. He knows his way around, and he’s the defacto manager now whenever an election rolls around. When the polls are open, he never sits down, always paces. He greets voters by name, and when some saucy old lady has the audacity to wink or wave at him, he flirts right back. And when night falls and he rides his motorcycle back to his two-story apartment in its authentic replica Spanish villa, he has to admit to himself that he’s made good, even though that was never his intention.

7: Spiffy

Spiffy doesn’t know any other dogs who wear bowties. Spiffy doesn’t know what a bowtie is, either, but he knows that he has one somewhere on his body. The safest bet is that it is the thing around his neck, because he doesn’t wear any other clothing, but Spiffy is willing to entertain any and all possibilities, no matter how impossible. Perhaps the thing called bowtie is at the tip of his tail? He can never quite get close enough to find out.

Spiffy is a show dog, but not the prestigious kind. He’s been bred to total confusion, so that he now skitters through the world with a brown splotch over his green eye and salt and pepper scruff around his blue one. His tongue is spotted black like the skin of a leopard, and the hairs on his ears stick up like feathers. He’s sleek, covered in short hair of a variety of colors. His short pointy tail is in constant motion. He is not an ugly dog, just mismatched.

The shows Spiffy frequents focus exclusively on training, and turn a blind eye to genetics. This is fortunate for Spiffy, because one would have to be blind to ignore his genetics. But in fact, it is his pedigree that makes him such an excellent performer. The clusterfuck of race memories barking in the furrows of Spiffy’s brain have had an effect on him akin to what regimented sleep deprivation does to Prisoners of War. His will is mud. He does what he is directed to do, no matter how impossible. He does corkscrew leaps into the air, he wears his bowtie, he powerslides across hardwood floors on his belly. He can do a serviceable canine facsimile of the dance from “Thriller.”

And so the house where Spiffy lives is filled with trophies. His owners – the one who smells like gardens and the one who smells like car rides – even make enough prize money to spring for a ludicrous gourmet dog feast every once in a while. All through the circuit, competitors fear the sight of “that dog with the fucking bowtie.”His owners have been interviewed for a few magazines, and they’re thinking about going national.

Spiffy has no idea about any of this. He’s still trying to figure out what a bowtie is.

6: Teresa Vargueños

Teresa Vargueños has the best lunches of anyone at her elementary school. Not everyone realizes this, because not every third-grader has a pallet as sophisticated as Teresa’s. Her mom refuses to let her buy the school lunches, and instead stuffs her knockoff pokemon lunchbox with homemade tamales, sopes, fajitas. The lunches are even better to Teresa because none of the other kids ever ask to trade. Better and worse. She’d like to be able to trade at least every once in a while. Even when she does get candy, there aren’t many kids who are interested in stuff with salt and chili powder all over it. The only thing about Teresa that any of the kids seem to be interested in is her weight.

Teresa is round, her cheeks define her dimpled chin like a ventriloquist’s dummy. She waddles a little when she walks, and her black braids swing side to side. She can’t run – or really, she doesn’t like to. Her mother gets concerned looks from the other parents when she comes to conferences. Teresa gets teased.

The teasing comes in many forms. There’s the obligatory catcalls of “fatso,” and “fatty” and “lard-butt,” the favored insults constantly mutating as old ones are worn out. But there’s also the assumptions. She’s always picked last for kickball, even though she can kick the ball so hard it bounces off the far fence. The pretty little blonde girls with their tiny toy makeup kits and pink padlocked journals turn silent when she draws near and explode into giggles once she’s past.

And so Teresa spends her recesses in a sparsely populated corner of the playground, watching the boys pretend to be robots and monsters stomping across the giant colored map of the United States. It’s not really the boys she’s looking at, but the map. They’re learning the state capitals now in class, and she’s just starting to get a picture of where she is in the world. And so, as she learns about the cities and the states in class, she brings that knowledge out to the playground. She combines it with little snippets she’s seen on TV – her grandma loves the cooking channel – and day by day she charts a path across the nation. Here she will get Chicago style deep-dish pizza. Here she will try Boston Cream Pie. The path grows and evolves and takes shape in her head, so that one day she can eat her fill in places where people will love her for it, the way she will love them.

5: Lumo Bashiri

Photo found by Bex Freund, Taken by Christopher Russell

Lumo Bashiri smiles at everyone, because he knows he is not going to die. Not today, or tomorrow, and at ten years old, those are the only days that really matter. Lumo runs barefoot through the streets of his village and he smiles at the other children, he smiles at the aid workers and the tourists, and he smiles at the mercenaries. He knows he is not going to die today or tomorrow
because he knows when he is going to die, although the memory is not as clear as it once was. He is going to die of a bullet to the stomach  in a large, white house when he is much, much older.

Lumo’s skin is black and unblemished and almost glossy, so that he looks like something sculpted out of rich clay. There are spaces between the teeth that make up his smile, and a few of them are rotten, but no more than is normal. He has no more flesh than is strictly necessary. The hand-me-down American clothes that the aid workers bring hang on his shoulders like a phantom’s shroud. His favorite is a red t-shirt with a faded picture of a band whose name he can neither read nor recognize.

Lumo came out of his mother face-down, and when he cried, it was because he had just learned how he would die. He had just learned everything there was to learn, in fact, and his tiny body was overcome with the impossibility of communicating it all. For years he cried endlessly, and he was as excited as his mother to aquire the power of speech. But his first word was “fire,” and their house burned down soon afterward. After that, his mother was much less enthusiastic about hearing him speak, and Lumo learned to keep his knowledge to himself. Most things he knows do not seem so urgent to him anymore. He is much more interested in candy.

When white people come to the village, they almost always bring candy. The Germans are his favorite, with their black gummi pretzels that seem to freeze and burn his mouth by turns. But he does not discriminate; all candy is precious to him. He charges into the crowds of other children wherever candy is dispensed, wearing his best smile and posing for the cameras. He is an expert by now.

And he trades bottlecaps and buttons and other small, sacred things for more candy, which he stockpiles beneath his mattress. He allows himself only a certain amount every day so that he will always have more. Ever since his birth, when he learned the names and the natures of all things, he has wanted candy because it seemed to him one of the purest goods in the world. Sure, too much could kill you, but Lumo knows that’s not how he’s going to die, doesn’t he? And with every piece he unwraps, that far-off future becomes a little less important, a little less distinct. Lumo’s life will be littered with these kinds of moments, he knows. He knows, too, that his life will be a slow unlearning of all the knowledge in the world.