39. Rocketface

Rocketface doesn’t just win, he dominates. Some say that it’s because he only plays at stuff he can win, but the truth is that it’d be damn near impossible to find a contest Rocketface can’t win

He was born fully-grown, the miraculous offspring of a derby girl and a jet engine. He’s got nitro for blood and hair product for hearts. That’s right, hearts – he’s got three of them: one for his body and one for each of his fists. One time, a hydraulic mining robot challenged him to arm wrestle. He crumpled it up and fed it to his hair.

He can drink ten barrels of Sirian Supergin and keep drinking. He can eat rat poison and shit plutonium. He can hold his breath at least three minutes in hard vacuum – he could’ve managed at least a minute more, but his opponent had already been dead a while. When he dances, grown men weep.

This is the point in the biography where the tone shifts, where we learn something about our subject that undermines his invincible image. There is no such thing to learn about Rocketface. He will continue barreling joyously across the galaxy, winning bets and turning the tides of wars, until he finally manages to find something that can kill him. And when he does find that thing, whatever it is, it’ll be so preposterous and noteworthy that merely encountering it will count as a win for Rocketface. That’s how hard he wins: he even wins at losing.

38. Grandmother Dust

She won’t tell them her real name, so they call her Grandmother Dust. She won’t tell them her name, not because she can’t remember, but because she refuses to be tied to anything she used to be. There was a time, not so long ago, when she believed that she had reached the end of her history, that she would accomplish nothing more of consequence in this life. She predicted for herself a dwindling half-life, sitting in a rocking chair unable to talk of anything but what once was. She refused this.

Alzheimer’s, they call it, and a disease. They assume she values the same things they do. But she has simply broken the habit of remembering. If she tried, really tried, of course she could remember. Instead, she sits propped up on the eastern edge of her enormous canopy bed – anyway, she assumes it’s hers – and draws patterns in the dust on the bedside table. She watches the gray film gradually accumulate on all the bizarre knick-knacks in the room: a globe, a mandolin, a taxidermied crocodile, an unfinished painting of an enormous, dessicated hand, beckoning…

People come and bring her food. They attempt conversation, but have difficulty sustaining it. They are all so dreadfully intent on discussing the past, and she has nothing to say about it. When they are not on about the past, they want to know her opinion on their futures, as if she has some special insight. But how can she talk of futures when the dust-currents in the sun-stained air surprise her constantly?

Instead, she describes to them the grandfather clock by the door, or the teeth of the crocodile, or the timbre of the young boy’s voice outside the window, yelling in a rapid, yodeling language she might once have understood. They do not hear her. They are too busy twisting her words into answers. Then they leave, and the tunnels their bodies cut through the dust heal immediately behind them.

37. Ronald Nurgle

Ronald Nurgle has got the secret to immortality, and he’s not sharing. Well, he would share, probably, except he doesn’t really know anybody worth sharing it with. Most people think Ronald is pretty stupid. That’s because of his secret.

Ronald hasn’t finished a damn thing since he was twenty years old. Not a book, not a job application, not even a sandwich. He doesn’t even finish his thoughts. The space between Ronald’s ears is a wasteland of half-formed sentences, their purposes now unfathomable. He works odd jobs – construction, mostly – and he always leaves early.

He never sleeps through the night, and he rarely sleeps in the same place twice. He dreams in wireframe and storyboards, and wakes up suddenly. Then he’ll wrestle free of whatever trash-nest he didn’t finish building for himself, and walk the streets. Sometimes he spends weeks marooned on the same city block, reluctant to finish crossing the street.

The people who know him have a kind of fondness for him, though none of them can figure out why he’s not dead. All the bums who have just a little more money than Ronald like to buy him a beer or a sandwich every once in a while, knowing he won’t finish it. They learn not to be disturbed by the way his sentences always trail off. Some even learn to finish them for him. The conversation’s always a little one sided, but Ronald does seem to listen.

And Ronald does listen. He listens and he watches, because listening and watching are two tasks that can never be finished. He listens to his friends complete the arcs of their conversations, and watches them drift away to other tasks. He watches the horizon give birth to the sun in the morning, and receive its corpse at night. He stands on streetcorners and observes the uncountable tiny deaths that men call resolution. This is his secret. By never finishing anything, he’s made himself into a living manifestation of Zeno’s paradox. As long as he keeps it up, he will always be asymptotically approaching the end. And if by some mistake he ends up dead, his glut of unfinished business guarantees him at least a ghosthood.

36. Miss Val

Miss Val doesn’t look it, but she used to be a killer DJ. Back in the day, she spun it all: Funk, Soul, Blues, Hip-hop. She could scratch so smooth you’d never know she was mixing the track, or so fast and freaky you’d swear the beat was shaving your head. In competitions, she murdered. Other DJs did a lot of talking, but Miss Val said not a word. She let the music speak for her. Knew the exact position of every word on every record in her stack, and stitched them together like a ransom note.

After that, she worked six years in the rooftop restaurant at the Art Institute. There’d be three waiters on staff, a dozen empty tables, and a line out the door because all the regulars were waiting for an opening in her section. She had a heroically high tolerance for bullshit. Her meanest customers always ended up tipping the highest, and by the time she left she got more mail than her manager. More fan-mail than she got as a DJ.

Miss Val works a diner now, and looks the part. She’s got a solid frame and looks right in an apron, and she has to get one of the busboys to help her get the glasses down from the high shelf. She doesn’t miss being a DJ. These days, most of her time is taken up with the foster kids.

They’re tougher customers than any she’s ever had to serve. For going on twenty years now, she’s been cooking meals and changing diapers and convincing big brothers they don’t need to secretly stockpile food for their little sisters. She’s got to keep an exterminator on speed dial, but she loves those kids more than anything.

She’s got her own kids, too, and she still keeps in touch with some of her regulars from the Art Institute. Still stops by the clubs she used to DJ from time to time, and savors the weird looks she gets from the young kids. Every bartender in the city knows Miss Val, and if she drank at all she’d sure as hell never pay.

The question she gets most is how. How does she find enough love and patience for all these people? The secret is simple. Miss Val’s love is a peaceful, reactive love. It’s inexhaustible because it contains no moving parts to be exhausted. She saves her passion for herself, and responds to the world’s shit with a kind of emotional Aikido. She takes the bad, and without seeming to move, she flips it.

35. Snopes Varley

Snopes Varley is not quite a fortune-teller. Fortune-tellers have booths. They have cards or dice or bones. They charge a fee, and they do not intervene. Most of them are fakes. Snopes Varley has no booth, carries nothing but a hollow cane, takes no customers, and intervenes constantly.

Last week, a boy scout helped Snopes Varley cross a busy intersection at night. The light changed before they were halfway across, and six cars were forced to wait. Thus the intersection was clear when the drunk driver ran his red light, and no one was killed. The boy scout was three minutes late getting home. The man with whom his father is secretly sleeping was safely gone by then. The boy’s innocence was preserved. Snopes Varley places great stock in innocence.

The hollow cane raps a slow, measured beat against the pavement at all times. The black cloth slippers shuffle across blacktop, grass and gravel with unhurried ease. No facial tick or nervous tension betrays the whirlwind in Varley’s head. It is a benign whirlwind, and Snopes is in the eye of it.

And so the figure in the black hooded sweatshirt glides easily from potential crisis to potential crisis, deflecting each one with the suppleness of a tai chi master. There is no time for sleep, except while walking. Food, when it is needed, is incidental to the path that fate requires. The constant pace and the hypnotic rhythm of the cane combine to make Snopes better than invisible. Invisibility implies some supernatural agency, and raises suspicion in those who notice it. Irrelevance is more like it. It is the joke of this seeming irrelevance, the dramatic irony generated by a thousand secretly-averted deaths, that keeps a smile hidden in Snopes Varley’s weathered lips.

34. Rob Washington

Rob Washington makes terrible cakes. They are spongy, but never moist. They are slightly more flavorful than wet cardboard. The frosting is so sweet it makes teeth burn. By all rights, Washington’s Bakery should have closed years ago. But although Rob’s baking is miserable, his hugs are legendary.

The counter behind which Rob stands has a section that can be folded down to allow Rob into the eating area, or fixed in place to prevent customers from passing through. It is never fixed in place. Rob’s great deficiency as a baker (or anyway, one of his deficiencies) is that he has no sense of smell. Yet he can smell despair before it even walks through the door. He’ll have a cup of coffee ready by the time the little silver entry-bells are done ringing, and by the time you’re at the counter, he’ll have crossed around to meet you. He rarely says anything. If he does, it’s something simple like, “Oh, honey.” Something that carries no meaning, just the soothing bass of his voice. Then he enfolds you in his hamhock arms and doesn’t let go until he’s wrung the sadness out. After that, you’ve got to buy something. He won’t force you, but you know you have to.

And so Washington’s Bakery is full at all hours, every table packed with people gamely struggling through their cakes as a show of gratitude. The tables are small and scarce, which means the bakery has been responsible for a lot of chance meetings. Some of those have become marriages. There’s a general camaraderie amongst the patrons, even if they never speak. Something about having the sadness bled out of you by big arms, then suffering through baked goods in solidarity.

Rob must know the real reason for his success. What other Bakery have you ever heard of that’s open 24 hours? He sleeps on a cot behind the counter when it’s slow, always ready to leap up at the sound of the bell. The customers are so wrapped up in their own problems, they hardly ever question why a grown man would choose to spend himself on such an endeavor. If anyone ever asked, Rob would tell them it’s for more than just the love of the world.

“I know my cakes are terrible,” he’d tell them. “If anything, they’ve gotten worse over the years. What I’m waiting for – and maybe you’ll think this is silly – but what I’m waiting for is a handsome man about my age, with clean fragile hands and redeemable eyes, who comes into my shop crying. And when I hug him, and he finally smiles, he’ll tell me:

‘God, this cake is terrible. Let me show you how to make a better one.’”

33. Casey Kresh

Nobody wants to play chess against Casey Kresh. It’s not that she’s good. She’s phenomenal, but that’s not the reason. For a true connoisseur of the game it would be an honor to play against such a talent. That is, if it resided in anyone but Casey Kresh. She plays the game as if staving off a nightmare – eyeing the board with fierce desperation from across the ridge of her chin, knotting the muscles of her neck, snatching up pieces with fingers like talons.

In the rigid grip of her tibbly fingers, every piece is equally expendable. She spends lives extravagantly with no apparent aim, forcing the game into arcane configurations no chessmaster in his right mind would ever familiarize himself with. She digs herself out of these holes as a ghoul scrabbles free from a grave. She twitches, wheezes, hyperventilates. Trying to concentrate on a board game with a hundred and thirteen pounds of desperate muscle on the other side of the table is impossibly foolish. All but four of her matches have ended in forfeit. She won the other four, but her opponents from those matches are still revered as heroes. Two even survived.

Casey has always been playing war games, of one kind or another. She was born of an anonymous womb, left to live or die in a word that only granted passage if you carved the way yourself. By the time she was twelve she’d slashed so many grown-up hamstrings that she had to relearn knifeplay again from scratch when the growth spurt hit. From then to now, her life has been one screaming, white-knuckled brawl. Somewhere along the line, she taught herself to play.

This is why the patrons of the Blue Tip tolerate her night after night, as she sits shaking by the chessboard: Because this is the retirement she’s earned, and no one dares question the absurd constraints she’s seen fit to impose on it. Though no one is stupid enough to sit across from her these days, Miles the barback cautiously keeps her bowl of peanuts full, and she always has something to drink. But fear isn’t the only thing that keeps the chair across from Casey empty. Every patron knows the old quip about the only winning move. With Casey, though, the saying’s different. For Casey, after years of winning fights by force and absorbing the violence in her victims’ blood, the only winning move is not to win.

32. Arthur Molina

Arthur Molina is an unusually serious child. He insists that his mother cut his hair to precisely the same length every two weeks, and when people ask him why he’s always frowning he tells them that’s just the way his face looks. There is a reason for this.

Arthur (“Arturo” by birth, but he won’t let himself be called that) is an empath. He is uncannily good at reading emotions. He would be alarmingly good at it, except that he has yet to reveal his talent to anyone who might be alarmed by it. He doesn’t need to. He needs no outside corroboration to confirm his gift.

He is old enough to speak, but young enough to remember when he was born. The nurse placed him gently in the incubator. Too gently. Arthur’s newborn nerves detected the tension in the nurse’s fingers as she lowered his tiny body. She was trying not to cry. He cried for her.

He cried a lot, for a long time. He was devastated by the way the mailman gingerly dropped letters through the slot. Moved to tears of joy by the healthy gleam of the garbage men. He knew which of his classmates’ parents were going to get divorced before he knew what divorce was. His parents took him to a therapist, because of all the crying, and he sensed such an utter, terrifying coldness in the therapist that he resolved to appear sane from that day on.

On that day, Arthur closed his face. He suffocated the telltale twitching of his hands. His hair, which he’d been growing out for years, he let be cut. The world is an exhausting cataclysm of emotions for him, and he is determined not to make it worse with his own. He knows every avenue through which his feelings might escape, and he has bricked them all up until such a time as he is ready to explore them again. In the meantime he’ll become a doctor, or a police officer, or perhaps an advertising executive. Perhaps an artist, if he gets desperate. Anything, really, to pass the time until the walls come down.

31. Scott Reyshus

Scott stopped wearing his button-down to work a while ago, but his bosses don’t mention it. For one thing, his job is to talk on the phone all day. For another, he’s a volunteer. Anyway, if they were going to quibble about anything, it would probably be his hair.
Scott started work at the suicide hotline with a full head of hair. He’s been shaving off half an inch every week since then, from back to front. He volunteers seven nights a week, from 11PM to 7AM. He goes home to his two-bedroom apartment, and sleeps all day, and no one else comes home. He pays rent with the savings from his last job, bartending on the North Side. He quit that job just before he started work at the hotline. That was months ago, and at this point he’s got about enough money left to last him through the week. Most of the money goes to rent, frozen pizzas, and cigarillos.

Before he was a bartender, Scott was a carpenter’s apprentice. He’d spend the summer building decks, and only turn to bartending when it got cold out. Then he started slipping. Changed phones and lost the number of the carpenter he was working for. Started staying behind the bar year round, year after year, until half a decade had disappeared into the middle-distance between his customers’ anonymously smiling heads.

Five years since he’s worked as a carpenter doesn’t mean he doesn’t practice, though. In his living room – the one nobody goes in anymore – he’s built a scaffold. He plans to hang himself from that scaffold, when the money runs out and the last of his hair is gone. In the meantime, he spends his nights on the suicide hotline, saving lives. Racking up a reverse bodycount to counterbalance the acknowledged selfishness of his decision. Practicing, for an audience of a thousand anonymously weeping voices, an arrangement of words that might make even him reconsider.

30. Riley Washtenaw

Riley is really more of a girl’s name, if you think about it, and so Miss Washtenaw prefers to go by “Riles.” She got the nickname back in her twenties, on account of what she’d do to men. She stopped doing it at thirty-three when she got married, but the name stuck. Now she’s fifty-two years older than that, and she’s the closest thing this town has to a witch.

Which is not to say she’s ugly. She wouldn’t have the nickname if she was. She wears her hair short now, and age has had the effect of sanding off the unnecessary parts of her. She weighs eighty pounds soaking wet, and on the backs of her hands there’s not a vein you can’t see. It’s not that she’s mean, either. She’s got more smiles than frowns etched into that streamlined hatchet-face of hers. It’s just how she is with the plants.

Courting was most of what Riles did, and when she got married she found she had nothing to do. She had kids, sure, but she took care of them with the same absent-minded ease she took care of her tables in the diner where she used to work before getting hitched. She had to fill the time somehow, so she took up gardening. Or really, she spent a lot of time trying to kill herself.

That’s what she’d do. She’d go out in the backyard – at that time a slimy mud-pit twenty feet on a side – and just put things in her mouth, hoping to die. She must have developed some sort of truce with the swamp in those days, or else the plants got the impression she was too crazy to fuck with, or else the knowledge she gained from her … experiments gave her a hard-earned green thumb.

Nothing grows in this town, except in that 20 by 20 square behind Miss Washtenaw’s place. She doesn’t plant seeds. She searches the muck for the beginning of something she might like, and she helps it live. She makes deals with the creepers and the pitcher plants and the poison ivy. Only good bugs cross her fence. And she knows what every plant in that garden will do to a body …

All this to say, nobody ever asks her what happened to Mister Washtenaw all those years ago.