64. Elmo

Elmo was never very observant. His sister always told him so. And he never resented her for it – merely took it the way he took all his sister’s sayings: as truths he was powerless to change. She told him he was too trusting, too. He shrugged and smiled, gap toothed from a bully’s skateboard to the face.

“You’re right,” he said. “But what am I gonna do about it? Not trust people? I can’t not trust people. If I stopped trusting one person, I’d have to stop trusting everyone to be fair, and then how would I know stuff?”

“You’re too fair, too.” Said his sister. And he shrugged. And so on.

These days, Elmo’s sister has cause to thank him for his trust and for his fairness, now that the nerves inside her arms and legs and face and hands have stopped responding to her orders and she’s reduced, more or less, to a frustrated voice shouting in a condemned mansion of meat. They don’t have the tech yet to fix her, but they do have the tech to put a camera in Elmo’s forehead and network it to her eyes, patch her voice into his ears and give him what she always said he lacked – a brain in his head.

He had to lose his eyes to keep the channels from overheating, but he doesn’t mind. He really never was very observant. Now his sister describes to him what he sees, editorializing and guiding. And if ever anyone comments on the blackened, empty sockets he shrugs, smiles, and says “Hey, it’s not like I can see ’em.”

63. Cassandra Streng

Now, don’t get me wrong, Cassandra is a lovely person, just lovely, and you can’t argue with results, I just … don’t think she should be working for NASA is all. You don’t know her methods like I do – must not know, if you’re thinking of hiring her. So let me set the record straight: Cassandra Streng has no methods. Go ahead, lift he hood of one of those legendary formula 1 racers she’s so proud of. See if you can distinguish the engine from a bowl of steel spaghetti. She’s a master of non-euclidian mechanics. The geometry of her engines would drive whole pit crews insane, if her cars ever broke down.

But they don’t. They break records, the sound barrier, a neck once due to unhealthy acceleration, they break every possible thing except for down. Why? How can a red-hot knot of scrap metal and aluminum tape produce these results? The answer is, no one knows. And as a potential employer, that should disturb you.

I tell you this as a trained engineer, a concerned citizen, and a good Christian: I have gazed into her manifolds and seen Satan staring back at me. She will get your men to mars, I have no doubt. But what demons will be traveling with them?

62. Katsuo Kobe

Katsuo Kobe is a storm cloud. He moves slowly, he is never late, and his arrival is always heavy with portent. He is the owner of the Ally Cats Video Arcade [sic], and no one else tells him how to run his business. Not the staff, not the police, and certainly not the Yakuza.

Once, many years ago, the Yakuza tried. They sent a lawyer in a silk suit, who appeared in Katsuo’s office bearing a briefcase and a permanent smirk and an ultimatum: 20% of revenue and a veto on arcade policy, plus free reign for Ijima family muscle or else … the Ijima family would activate the machinery of pain.

Katsuo said nothing to the emissary. His response was an enormous, dread ellipse, which boiled off his massive shoulders and hovered over the lawyer until he smothered in it and begged to be excused.

The next day, the emissary was dead. Four cars exploded in Ijima territory. Their cocaine turned to borax and their fronts, one by one, caught fire. A second emissary visited Katsuo to withdraw the ultimatum. The big man heard him, but the violence continued. Guns jammed at critical moments. Strip clubs flooded with phosphene gas. Each night, one window of Boss Ijima’s mansion shattered, until no windows remained. No bribe, no apology, no ritual suicide could end the onslaught, until one day, three months and three days after it started, it simply stopped. It was done.

Today, Katsuo drifts down the aisles of his arcade undisturbed, collecting the day’s take from the machines. He cuts a trough of silence through the cacaphony. He owns no other buildings, grants no favors and is owed none, and never speaks. But in the heart of his dark bulk, blue lightning crackles.

61. Santa Voltaire

There are plenty fortune tellers down in New Orleans. The market is saturated with oracles of every discipline, all clamouring to tell your future. Only Santa, though, only the ageless orisha with the X-ray eyes, can tell your past.

It’s amazing what you can forget, and then forget you forgot – the origins of certain fears, good moments in bad relationships, whole human beings and the wisdom they imparted. Santa’s clients leave her sturdy little shack with potent new memories swimming behind their eyes, blocking any present tense visions from getting in. She employs a doorman for this reason, and while he guides them down her steps they whisper their own mundane prophecies, grounded in thir renewed knowledge.

She is a practiced asker of questions, and with herbs and quiet words and different colored smoke she melts the present moment and leads her visitors by the hand through the palaces of their own minds, a docent pointing out the architecture they’ve long taken for granted.

Her own memory is perhaps too good, augmented as it is by every asset of her art. It’s why she learned the quiet words, procured the rare herbs and the sources of the smoke: a life remembered in full is worth countless lives forgotten. That’s the motto she speaks aloud, anyway. When she’s alone, though, and all the colored smoke has cleared, all that remain are the wisps from the rolled-up photographs she smokes. And in those floating patterns she sees a face, always the same – a face that only exists in smoke these days. And though that woman’s name is written in the folds of Santa’s mind with razor blades, she never says a word.

60. Carter Samson

You think you’re better than that guy, huh? You think if you’d been in his position you would have wondered about the swarming in your head, gone to a doctor maybe? Bombarded your skull with radiation, piped nitrous oxide in through your ears and snorted ammonia to flush out the invaders? Do you? Do you really? Well if you’ve got time to pass judgement on the poor bastard you’ve got time to hear his story.

Truth is, towards the end of it Carter didn’t have the space left in his head to wonder about what was taking up the rest of it. And before that he was in love. The kind of un-checked deadly love only hermits fall into. You can be a hermit in a city this size – one of the nice things about it – as long as you live on the forty-sixth floor and order groceries on the internet. That was Carter’s life.

He made mobiles. Thousands of them. The room was thick with them. He liked the shifting forms, the false weightlessness. It was only natural he should love the birds. They came in through his open window to frolic among the mobiles. The pigeons were too fat to navigate, but the cardinals made a game of it. One cardinal in particular became Carter’s hermetic paramour. He would lie on his bed, watching the birds trace shifting patterns in the mobiles with their private wind, and this one cardinal, his love would perch on his pillow. She would whisper secrets in his ear. One per day. And they would lull him into sleep.

The secrets were in bird language, and they were meaningless to him. He could only tell that the messages were secrets, but could not fathom what they contained. What they contained were birds, tiny birds, which roosted in the folds of his brain and crowded out his human thoughts. He stopped making mobiles. There was no more space for them anyway. He would stand for hours at his window, imagining flight.
Eventually there was no more room for imagining. He leapt. His skull cracked. The birds flew out of every terminal part of him, suspending him for a moment above the sidewalk with the collective beating of their wings. When he touched ground it was as if he had been placed there by the same hand that places fall leaves upon the grass.

We could drive ourselves mad debating whether this was what he wanted. He’s got nothing left inside with which to tell us. But let me ask you this: don’t we all want to bring something strange and buoyant into this world? And isn’t flesh a paltry price to pay?

59. Toby

Toby’s problem is that he is extremely polite. He always eats what he’s given, and never complains, though this is primarily because he has no stomach and no tongue. He is seen but not heard – as a good child ought to be – unless you count the clacking of his metatarsals on the tile floor of his home. But who would have the heart to hold that against him, the little dear?

He tries to talk sometimes, by clicking his teeth together. The adults take photographs on their phones. He can walk now, un-aided, and they take videos of this feat as well. They pack him tiny lunches to take to school, but he does not eat them because he is a tiny skeleton, and there is no point in eating when his parents are not around to see.

He was stillborn. That’s what the doctors said, but his parents wouldn’t believe them. And Toby, the perfect darling, just didn’t have the heart to disappoint them. Now he hasn’t got a heart at all. There was an ugly period in the first year while the flesh went away, but that’s all behind them now. Now he’s just a precocious little bundle of joy, joy and bones, toddling along and clicking his teeth and wondering if the bones will ever grow longer.

58. Tennyson Grinn

If you save for retirement and invest wisely, obey the posted speed limits, jump no turnstiles, wake in the morning, sleep at night, and do it dreamlessly … then you have clearly never met a man named Tennyson Grinn.

He is tall to the point of absurdity, and augments the effect with a stovepipe hat, from beneath which strawlike hair tries desperately to escape. He dresses like an inappropriately cheerful undertaker, or a second-chair jazz musician in the orchestra of hell. And the smile. Dear god. It is not a Cheshire smile. That cat stole Tennyson’s Grin, and he sued the crafty feline for copyright infringement and won, hasn’t worked a day since. At least that’s what Tennyson will tell you.
His clothes are a heap of lies, of purely technical truths. He wears no shirt beneath his coat. The triangle of dress shirt that bears his bow tie is just that – a charefully cropped cravat with buttons down the front, matched by the two disembodied cuffs poking out of his sleeves. He is totally bald – the strawlike hair is glued to the inside of his hat brim. The lenses of his glasses are painted black, and he is blind.
Tennyson is a traveling salesman, and his product is madness. He criss-crosses the country, turning tinkerers into mad scientists and painters into artists. He is seldom remembered and never paid. But anyone, from coast to coast, night to day, palace to prison, would recognize that smile.

52. Grizzle Belroy

The going rate for prophetic vision these days is one eye. Grizzle Belroy was clever, though. He gave half the sight in each his eyes, and then bought a pair of glasses. This sort of vision (if the pun can be excused) is Belroy’s hallmark. He reads between the lines of his own prophecies, and deduces the twists and turns his hearer’s road must take to create the final condition. No prophet has ever wrung so much value from the gift. Nor has any prophet ever been so miserable.

The trouble with foregoing the standard fee for prophecy is that there is nothing to mark Belroy as a member of his profession. An eye patch, it turns out, does wonders for the credibility of its wearer. This, coupled with the fact that Grizzle shrewdly refuses to wear clothes unless his weather predictions demand it, means that Belroy himself is rarely in demand. He splits his abundant free time between the nude beach and Shinbone Alley, the cobblestoned byway where superstitious butchers discard their most auspicious bones. Shinbone alley is where his one customer finds him.

The man who calls on him refuses to give a name. Belroy has seen enough of the young man’s future to understand why. He comes every week now, always wanting to know the outcome of his next robbery. The visions Belroy relates to the man are awash with blood, but never the young man’s own. And Grizzle has watched the robberies become extortion, become racketeering, bribery, and assassination. And the young man keeps him fed.

It is not the most glamorous of arrangements, but the prophet of Shinbone Alley has never been much for glamour. He knows what the young man doesn’t – that in sixty-six more months the prophet will be alone again. For the man only asks “will I die tonight?” Never “will I die?”

51. Arnold Teacup

Arnold Teacup is that rarest of things: A man who is what he wanted to be when he grew up. Since he first heard the muffled roar of a plane overhead, since he first watched one crawl across the sky, since a mustachioed man first pinned a pair of wings to his smudged t-shirt, down and to the left of his bony bobblehead chin. The flight attendants had been so nice to him then, had come down to his level and cooed over him in a way he’d known was fake, but which foreshadowed to him the real cooing to come.

No one looks scrawny or malformed in a pilot’s uniform – not if it’s fitted right. And Arnold’s is. He’s the youngest co-pilot American has ever hired, and he does good. His partners can’t stand him for the way he insists on every minor point of protocol, all the checkboxes you learn to safely ignore over a long career.

But Arnold doesn’t want to ignore anything. His huge watery eyes take in tundra after tundra of cloud cover, playing the same kind of make-believe with them that he used to play when he was looking from the other side. He chases and flees susnsets six days a week, and sees in the little geometric farm plots the dioramas that his train sets used to run through, before he discovered air travel. And he can make people fall in love with him, too, for as long as he wears the uniform.