49. Jenny

Jenny’s a champ. A real pro. She punches like meteors and dodges like a hologram, unless her manager asks her to throw a fight, which she does without blinking. Doesn’t blink much, period. One of the things people find odd about her. That, and the fact she actually seems to crave concussions.

On those nights when she’s scheduled to lose, Jenny leads with her face. She blocks with her face. She makes sure the opposing punches can’t land anywhere but her face. She can go down in the first round if need be. The only challenge for the bookies is making it look like a fair fight. On those nights, Jenny stumbles drunkenly to her locker room, arm draped over her manager’s hunched back, and while he washes the blood out of her scalp and eyes, she sits at a folding metal desk and writes poetry.

She writes in black composition books with wide-ruled lines. Her handwriting isn’t what it was when she started the project, and that’s part of the point. Jenny’s tried drugs, tried meditation, tried travel, and found that the altered states produced by these had already been explored by previous generations of poets. Wholesale brain damage is all that’s left to try. So she absorbs inspiration in the form of impact, and writes a revolutionary mosaic of clotted blood and shattered bone.

48. Clyde & Molly

47. Ward Ishihara

46. Todd

45. Michelle Morales

They call her Shell because Michelle is too many syllables to yell when she’s beating the hell out of one of the other inmates. Inmates: her word, though the staff keeps encouraging her to use “tenants.”

And the real shame of it is, she can be a real sweetheart sometimes. So say the new volunteers, but the old ones know she doesn’t speak more than maybe one word of truth out of every fifty. She hasn’t had her period yet, but she knows what it is, lied about it once to get one of the staff alone with her in the bathroom. “I love to fight in bathrooms,” she says, “Lots of hard surfaces.” And that at least isn’t a lie.

She tells the therapist a different story every week or two. She was an heiress at one point, disinherited because a private investigator proved she might be illegitimate. She was a sea-captain’s daughter, whose father had murdered her mother and sister in front of her. She was the adopted daughter of an American-born jihadist, given up to the state when he was shipped off to Guantanamo. When she said she was sent from space to preach a message of peace and joy, that’s when the therapist finally stopped trying to believe her.

She tells everyone she’s a painter, too, but they all know she’s lying. Trouble is, she’s not. She steals watercolors from the pharmacy on Lincoln, and sells her brightly-colored masterpieces for five bucks a piece on Michigan ave. It’s blue and red chaos on her canvas – men on fire, oceans in storm, things that might be dragons. She sells the paintings too fast for anyone at the shelter to ever find any as proof. But sooner or later, someone will. They’ll bust in without knocking and find her hunched among the day’s batch of drawings, and they’ll say, “My god, I was sure you were lying. These are amazing.””Ah, they’re okay,” she’ll lie.

44. Babyface Lester

To be a town, you don’t need all that much. You don’t need plumbing, long as you’ve got a river and a bucket. Hell, if you’ve got those two things you can pretty much do without a fire department too. Electricity’s a shameless extravagance, and you can get by without cops as long as folks are generally decent, or so thoroughly horrible as to guarantee mutually assured destruction. But if you ain’t got any of those other things, there is one element that you absolutely do need: you need a Lester.

We call him “Babyface,” because he’s got one. You can search and search that round head for wrinkles, and all you’ll turn up is a lazy eye and a hole where a nose used to be. This thanks to the fact that the nerves in Lester’s face are all dead, the way Hollywood models pay to have done. There’s no electrical signals to tell Lester’s face to age, or to do anything, really. And he’s our hero.

Eighteen years ago was when a gasket burst on the vat of high-pressure phosphene gas Lester was cleaning at The Plant. Paralyzed everything between the hair on his head and the hair on his chest. Rotted away his vocal chords when he breathed in, and his nose when he breathed out. And the smug bastard just turned on his heel, gas still reaching for the high ceilings, walked to the break room and punched out.

See, The Plant budgets for this kind of thing. End up paying settlements to two or three employees a year, just to keep things running smooth. Lester couldn’t see too well after the accident. He couldn’t smell, taste, or talk. But he could hear fine, and his future sounded like a god-damn cash register.

They gave him a hell of a lot more than they give any of us what actually work there. And he gives it right back to us. Sits stiffly at the pockmarked bar in the Blue Tip, night after night, buying drinks and listening to stories. Folks come from all over town with their troubles, and he buys ’em off them. People say he’s a martyr – they see suffering in those wilted eyes of his. But I know better. His face is only frozen in that frown, and he’s got no idea what his eyes are doing. Cause lemme ask you something: If Babyface didn’t get the joke of it all, why the hell would he wear his hair that way?

43. Kali Durga

For all the towns and hearts she’s set ablaze with her performance, Kali Durga’s name is the only element of her that remains consistent across all of them. She appears in a dazzling variety of  costumes – gifts from her lovers, lucky finds, windfall purchases, pasted-on scrap leather, improvised hurricanes of repurposed curtain-fabric bright as the fire she eats. Her face is always painted. When she runs out of a certain color, she replaces it with a new one, so that her pallet shifts gradually across a neon spectrum. If she were on the run from something, hers would be the perfect cover.

She isn’t running from anything, though. If she’s running at all, it’s towards something. She doesn’t have words for what the thing is, or any clear idea of where to find it, and so she spends her time searching in the thorough and methodical way her mother taught her. In the mornings, while her conquests sleep the sleep of the satisfied, she tiptoes around their bedrooms, opening every drawer and fingering its hidden trinkets on the off-chance one might hold a clue to what she’s seeking.

From Tokyo to Topeka, the women she leaves behind perpetuate her legacy, and only her name marks their stories as parts of the same story. They describe her clothes, her face-paint, the constellations of fire she weaves about her with her props, but never anything she can’t change. When she dances, she blinds her audiences with flame, and when she makes love she is always back-lit. She is reluctant to let anyone see her until she’s figured out what she’s supposed to be.

42. Bashir Muhammad

Bashir Muhammad knows every avatar of fire. When he was 23, he made love to a Djinn in the alley behind The Sultan of Swing Jazz Club. Djinni are fire made flesh, and Bashir’s flesh was bathed in that fire until his skin bubbled and his nerves sang confused rumors of frostbite. By the time he could bear to open his half-melted eyelids, his lover had gone up in smoke. “Literal smoke,” he would tell friends for weeks after, in a voice that seemed incapable of anything below a scream.

That furtive rendezvous with the djinn ignited a corresponding fire in Bashir – a tumor of red heat that grew in him like the glowing eye at the tip of a cone of incense. It spread from his heart outward, reaching with rosy fingers to touch the perpetual fire in his scarred skin, which never healed. His constant screaming increased in pitch and volume, until screaming was no longer enough, and he began to sing.

That’s what they say, anyway, and how else do you explain the music he makes? The stuff that leaves whole stadiums feverish, frantic dancers collapsing beneath thick clouds of sweat? They say he’s lost seventy-four fans to heat stroke so far, and his tour is far from over.

He’s hell to manage. He can’t negotiate contracts – can’t even read the things through the flames in his black-brown eyes. He lives lavishly because his handlers know it’s their job to keep him alive, to give him something to consume besides himself. The fans know they’ve only got so long to see him before he crumbles to ash. They know, too, that no matter how red his voice glows in the furnace of his throat, what he’s singing is the very definition of the blues.

41. Garfield

Garfield is big for his age. He has a barrel chest, a martially erect posture, and feathers orange like the sun seen through a piece of root-beer candy. He’s eaten his share of root-beer candy. Potato chips, too. He rips apart disks of salami, and enthusiastically pecks away at clouds of cream cheese, so that they vanish to nothing by pinpricks. He eats, in short, anything that they bring him. In the morning, when he has not yet had his breakfast, he reprimands his many keepers with adolescent squawks still struggling to navigate the architecture of his throat. He is the triumphant boy-king of the Park, and he will accept no excuses.

Roosters don’t have much of what we call memory, so there’s no point inquiring about where Garfield came from. Instead, look at where he is: perched atop a one-man shanty built of cardboard and carpet remnants, in the exact center of a public park, in the exact center of the most notorious drug spot in the city. The neighborhood is named after the park, which is named after Garfield – you might say it’s the other way around, but Garfield would peck your eyes out if he understood what you were saying.

Garfield belongs to the pockmarked patriarch who owns the shanty. The man is a sort of father to the junkies who congregate in this shaded section of the park, offering them a place to fix away from prying eyes, a place to do deals -as long as they don’t fight too loud – and a place to sleep on nights when they can’t make it anywhere else. Garfield is familiar with the needle and lighter, the scraps of cylindrical glass repurposed for crack pipes, the inedible crumbs dribbled out the open ends of hand-rolled cigarettes.

He does not mind these things, or particularly care. They are not edible, and so he busies himself with other things. Whatever else might be said of the junkies, they keep him fed. And when they don’t, he picks fights with the pond-rats and squirrels for their meager takings. He is a brilliant alien in their midst – a natural-born king if only because they do not understand what else he could be. He is not even old enough yet to fear the Chicago winter, and when he folds into himself to sleep each night in a plastic crate beneath his master’s pillow he does not dream, because he cannot imagine a richer life than the one he leads. You might say that’s because roosters haven’t got enough imagination to be discontent, or to dream. But if you did say it, it’s not as if Garfield would understand you.

40. Joe

Poetry is a hell of a drug, but even a die-hard addict will warn you against scripture. Scripture, for God’s sake – the stuff that started all those wars and religions, and you’re gonna beam that shit straight into your cortex uncut? Insane, that’s the only word they’ve got for it, and you better believe the poetry-addicts know them some words.

Fuck ’em, says Joe, and does it anyway. Been doing it for decades, longer than some of those junkies even been alive. He’ll sit for hours on a plastic crate on the second floor of the empty tenement they all share, head hung low and seeing sermons. His Kortiko is an old one, a mosquito-whining relic that clings to his half-shaved scalp with sucker feet. Has to be old – they build limits into the new hardware specifically to stop shit like this. He loads whole sacred codexes onto the thing and lets the neuristors translate it into a synaptic-spike language his brain can metabolize. He lives the visions of the prophets in real time, high def, twenty-four seven.

And in spite of this, he takes care of the other ones. Shows up some days with whole cakes from Lord-only-knows-where, hands them around between stupors. Teaches the younger ones how to spoof blown-out contacts in their Kortikos with gum wrappers and an exacto knife. And when they brag about the monitor they just shoplifted, or throw a wild tantrum because the flash drive they copped is corrupted, he looks at them from under heavy lids and

“Whatever you plant, baby, that’s what’s gonna grow.”

And when they get embarassed by his candor, when they turn that brittle rage on him, try to protest or shout him down, he just shakes his head and says, with periods like paragraph breaks,

“It’s not about that.
It’s not from me.
I’m just delivering a message to you.
From god.”

Then he lapses into open-eyed sleep and says nothing.

Guy like Joe might have been a prophet himself, back when that kind of thing was big business. It’s tough times for revelation, though. These days the best he can do is sit tight and watch his predecessors on the instant replay.