19: Clem Kelso

Clem Kelso is three hundred pounds of good-natured regret in a Hawaiian shirt. He’s got forearms like hamhocks, big enough to break up bar fights even considering his lack of practice. When he’s opening the place up at ten in the morning, when he’s closing it down at four, he smiles with his mouth and lets his eyes go soft as he polishes the neverending cascade of glasses behind the bar at the Blue Tip.

The Blue Tip is an ounce of half-remembered class in a metrick fuckton of godforsaken swamp. The runoff from the oil refinery upriver sloughed through here years ago and left everyone dead or insane. So insane is what Clem makes due with, listening night after night as stories devolve into arguments devolve into brawls across the scuffed mahogany bar. The lights are dim, which worked just as well for a class joint back in the day as it does now for a grubby hole in the center of a larger, grubbier hole.

It’s not that he’s above it all. Hell, Clem wouldn’t own the damn place if he didn’t like it. He lives for the dirty jokes, rewards them with a laugh so rich it sounds like a roar and vibrates sensitive eardrums. If one of the patrons scrapes enough together to buy him a drink he can even be goaded into telling the one about the blind priest and the bag full of peaches. So it’s not as if he doesn’t like it, no. It’s the opposite if anything. It’s the only thing he has a hope of liking. The Blue Tip is his home, his ex-wife is a belligerent ghost in his head, his family is a bunch of blackout drunks slowly gearing up for the evening’s brawl across the bar. The closest he’s got to a son is a hard-drinking imp with a bobble-head and knife-sharp hands who stumbled into the place months ago.

But at the center of Clem there is some thing, some millstone constantly working, that hates this poisoned pit his hometown has become. A part that doesn’t want to bother waking up day after day, giving a boost from the gutter into a slightly nicer gutter. He wants to leave. If only he wasn’t needed here.

18: List Owens

List Owens is one of those people whose age is impossible to guess, but he can tell you how long he’s been alive down to the microsecond. His pale skin is stretched over an angular skull with a thin layer of downy, platinum hair on top like a baby’s. His eyes are tiny, sinking into chiseled divots in his skull like they’re trying to examine his brain. Or what’s left of his brain. Most of the storage capacity of List Owens’ brain has been replaced with a solid state hard drive and an optimized search function. He now has perfect access to every moment of his past.

List Owens has been alive for thirty-eight years, six months, twelve days, etc. He got the surgery right when it became commercially available, back before FDA regulations and government scrutiny. The hard drive cooks the inside of his skull. It’s changed the color of his hair and he sees snakes everywhere. And there were some things he would rather not remember, now that he remembers them. He can relive embarrassing moments from highschool in real time, with all the accompanying emotions. He remembers the time his insane grandfather vomited a cascade of Lithium onto his chest as he held him in his arms. He remembers his lesbian babysitter who stalked his mom and put him in a scissor lock whenever they were alone together. Sometimes he opens his eyes and realizes he’s been living in a realtime memory for over three days. Then he drags himself into the kitchen, eats everything on the bottom shelf of his refrigerator, and then passes out in the shower.

He was part of an online community of “grinders,” people who pushed the limits of what it meant to be human. They implanted chips under their skin, plastered walls with QR codes, hacked together bionic legs and heads up displays. When the hard drives went public, it was a natural progression. Perfect recall, the prospect of camera attachments, RFID scanners, the crucible of the whole transhuman movement located in the center of his skull. He was the test case for the technology, and gladly so. Now they pay victims of violent crimes to get the upgrade, half the police department has it, and most of the US Bureacracy can hardly even be called human anymore. But List has discovered a different application.

List was a DJ before he got the upgrade, and he’s still a DJ now. He plays pretty regular gigs at warehouse clubs all over Los Angeles, and he sets his brain to automatically bounce a folder of his latest recordings to the venue on the day of his performance in case he loses himself in memories. He doesn’t have to immerse himself in the contents of his mind like this. The technology provides or a summary-type view of his experiences. He can peruse them at his leisure. But List is a DJ, and to him, a true DJ knows his source material from beginning to end. His songs are not cobbled together from milk crates full of old records, or monumental torrent files. His music is distilled from the sum total of his life experience. A song he rocked out to when he was sixteen forms the backbone of a scratched-together dialogue between his heroin-addicted ex and the girl she was when he fell in love with her. A gypsy folk song he heard on the radio during a hitch-hiking trip haunts the corridors between slamming doors, screaming punks, hare krishnas and his grandfather’s socialist diatribes. His head is a recording studio, his ears are ambient mics. His experience is his art, with no intermediary but himself. He does the mixing on a synthesized deck native to his internal hard drive. Nothing really bothers List Owens anymore, because the louder things get, the sicker his basslines.

17: Amelia Grey

Amelia Grey could make a modest income selling her hair for wigs, but she donates it to cancer kids instead. Right before she cuts it off every two years she starts getting more and more people walking up to her on the street, offering her modeling gigs and acting jobs. The homeless men are so sweet, too. Amelia has hair like spun gold, and when she grows it long it falls in gravity-defying coils around her upside-down teardrop face. It clashes horribly with her orange crossing guard uniform.

Every weekday morning during the school year Amelia wakes up at 4AM to get to the crossing that she guards. She’s only just turned thirty and she wakes up at a time she used to think was reserved for old people. It’s been four years, and so she’s used to it by now. The darkness used to upset and confuse her internal clock. She used to resent feeling sleepy at nine PM. Now she’s addicted to coffee and can’t sleep past six if she wants to. Her day-glo orange uniform hangs in the closet next to the motheaten formal dress she wore to her brother’s funeral.

Amelia has a body that could stop traffic, if she dressed for it, but she relies on her standard-issue stop sign instead. Four years and she doesn’t know any of the children by name. They’re always changing, and it’s not as if they really talk. The parents all thank her for doing what she’s doing, but through the sleepiness and the morning fog no one ever seems to recognize her. Day after day she patrols the same intersection, slowing a metamorphosing torrent of minivans. Some days she cries, but usually after work, during the five-mile walk home.

Amelia works as a waitress at Denny’s, taking shifts at odd hours and abusing the free coffee. She takes night classes at community college. She always seems to be one semester away from graduating. And everything she does is subordinated to her crossing guard schedule. Sometimes she sleeps sitting up in bus stops, but only when her hair is too short to draw much attention. Life for Amelia is a series of crossings, and the only thing she can do is make sure they are safe ones.

16: Elena Arbizu

Elena Arbizu has had seventy years to sink into herself like a nesting doll. She waddles through her graveyard three times a day: in the morning to unlock the gates, at night to lock them, and some time in the middle to inspect the graves. Spanish graves are marked with grand statues and ornate sheds, and the miniature city of marble and plaster seems to grow up around Elena as her bones settle and shrink. Some day they will reach the sun.

Elena has worked in the graveyard since she was a girl, and now her granddaughter Adriana works here too. They don’t do much unless there’s a corpse to prepare for burial, and more and more of that is done by private contractors anyway. Mostly they just sweep the graves or knit scarves in the shack by the gates. Elena wears a blue shawl and a white blouse almost every day, so that even the graves with no flowers will have a little color as she walks by. She knows the names of those who visit faithfully, and they know her. Up until recently she took it upon herself to gently guide the grieving out of the graveyard, but her knees and her voice are going, and she finds it difficult to come up with some of the right words now. It’s as if she can see them in the air in front of her, but she can’t read them, and the last time she tried to comfort a young college boy at his father’s mausoleum the words became so difficult to find that she was reduced to tears. He thought she was crying with him and thanked her, but she has had Adriana handle the job ever since. She has a feeling that her granddaughter has a think for the boy anyway.

But as old as she gets, and as much as her joints creak, Elena refuses to give up her midday walk among the markers. She takes her cane and a thermos full of gazpacho and she says hello to the dead. She sees the names of people she knew, people whose children she knows, people whose names she heard spoken when she herself was a child. Each family shares a mausoleum, with size appropriate to wealth, and each day Elena ends her walk at her own family’s tiny mausoleum. Every day the roof seems a little higher, the ground a little closer. And one day, some day soon, she will become so small that they will not even need to open the doors for her. She will slip right under the door, and shrink down into the earth.

15: Charles Pengrove

Doctor Charles Pengrove is unsettlingly tall, and looks as if he got that way by being stretched on the rack. Even his face is disturbingly long, with wrinkles that are almost completely vertical. Most of his hair is gone, and what’s left is combed futilely over his liver-spotted scalp. He wears a monocle in an attempt to disguise the fact that his right eye is significantly larger than his left, but it really only serves to ruin his depth perception. He wears cardigans over dress shirts, the sleeves of which he keeps rolled up because they fall short of his wrists anyway. His fingers look like letter openers.

Ugly didn’t sneak up on Doctor Pengrove. Ugly has been with him since he was a boy, and he’s had decades to come to terms with it. His refuge is hypnosis. When he was sixteen he saw a hypnotist do a stage show at the county fair. What hooked him wasn’t the spectacle of the thing – the people clucking like chickens and talking to aliens – no, it was that first moment when the hypnotist put his hand on a woman’s shoulder and said, “Sleep.” With a word and a gesture, he closed her eyes. He made his words the only thing that mattered. And so Charles Pengrove taught himself hypnosis.

He went to college for Psychology. He got his PhD and got a job as a teacher, continuing his training all the while. With hypnosis, he could reach into peoples’ brains and tweak their controls. He could help people to see past prejudices, to be happy around him, to enjoy their lives. But all of that feels shallow now. He has a thick black book full of the phone numbers women have given him. He used to cross them out when he’d fucked them. He could still do it, if he wanted to, but there is no longer anything erotic for him about having sex with a hand puppet. He spends the time he used to spend at bars alone in his office, staring at his stuccoed ceiling, hypnotizing himself. He expands his awareness to the edges of the room, and gradually he formulates a system.

For years he’s used hypnosis as a way to get people to do what he wants them to do, but now he realizes that there is a far deeper array of settings he can adjust. With a carefully planned hypnotic regimen, he can transform an ordinary student into a politician, or an inventor, or an actress. Anything they want to be, he can make them the best at it. By optimizing their minds for the task at hand, by removing all the clutter, he can create the perfect students. And so he does. He trawls his classes for candidates, for students desperate with dreams. He induces trances, and he shows them photographs and plays recordings, and embeds packages of data deep within their psyches. He is the common denominator in all the great figures of his era’s cultural revolution. But just like before, with the women in the bars, no one knows it is Professor Pengrove who is responsible for these things. To know would break the spell.

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.