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.

4: Anne Quince

Anne Quince was never very pretty, but people who didn’t know her before she got hit by a truck assume she was beautiful, because it’s a charitable thing to assume. To be fair, her hair is golden and flawless, but it’s not actually hair. It’s a wig. Hair doesn’t grow on the left side of her head anymore. Anne is thirty-three years old, but the crash has made her age almost impossible to guess. Her left side is twisted. Her left ear is nothing but a hole in her head. Her fingers zig-zag and jostle each other when she tries to hold a pen, and her shin curves inwards at the bottom. But some of the cells in her right side became paralyzed in the crash, and there are places on her face – around her eye, especially – that look the same as they did when she was twenty-six.

Anne works in a bakery, arriving at four in the morning to make the day’s bread from scratch. It’s a job where she can make an endless supply of  small, perfect things, and where she doesn’t have to deal with people. She likes people well enough, but she gets tired of strangers looking at everything in the room but her. She wears fringed leather pants and one of those reflective jackets construction workers wear. Sometimes she wears a low cut, neon orange blouse with the word “FUCK” on it in huge black letters. She made the shirt herself. But hardly anyone ever starts a conversation with her. Everyone holds the elevator for her, but when she gets inside, the silence is so intense it makes her ears pop.

Anne only has a couple of friends she really keeps in touch with, one of whom works at the bakery and one of whom she roomed with in college. She goes to parties every so often, and she gets laid about as much as anyone else, but not with any consistency. She has a theory that guys want to see what it’s like to get a cripple in the sack, and then can’t live with themselves once they realize that was what they were after. She laughs about it. Her pelvis is so twisted up that sex is pretty painful anyway.

Anne has an ulterior motive for working at the bakery. She’s saving up money. She lives in a shitty apartment that used to be an opium den, in a neighborhood two steps ahead of gentrification. Her ex-roommate works in a thrift store and hooks her up with whatever clothes she needs. She takes home dough from the bakery and eats mostly bread and chili. Anne is saving up to be a cyborg.

Piece by piece, Anne is rebuilding her body. The wig was the first step, a symbolic declaration of intention. Next came a metal bracket at the base of her spine. The latest addition is a prosthetic foot, replacing the worthless splinters she used to walk on. She’s painted flames on it, and it’s fitted so that it can be attached to a prosthetic leg when she gets the money. She wants to hollow out her prosthetic leg and smuggle heroin in it, or put thigh-powered blowgun in it and become an assassin. She knows that’s never going to happen, of course. But she also knows that in a few decades, people are going to be sawing off perfectly healthy arms and legs to be what she’s becoming.

3: Isaac Fitch

Isaac Fitch’s face is just a placeholder between two swollen headphones. The headphones cost more than the rest of his wardrobe combined; the puffy blue polyester jacket, the baggy khakis, the mismatched socks and the disintegrating Converse don’t fit him, and don’t match. Isaac is twenty-four years old, but he won’t be born for another thirty years from our perspective. Every day he walks through a city not terribly different from the cities of our present, his head down and his hands in his pockets, and his headphones pump noise into his brain.

He listens to music mathematically engineered to induce movement. A kick drum hammers through his skull in four-four time, and he walks to the beat. The pops and squeals and washes of electronic fuzz distort the colors of his surroundings, sap the city of its realness. He watches children play in a park as if they are part of a book he is reading. He is entranced by his own feet. His jaw remains slack, and his hands never leave his pockets unless he needs to pay for something.

The music drowns out thought. Isaac’s hair grows in four-four time. He showers with the speakers in his tiny apartment turned up all the way, and he never shaves. He doesn’t read the news except when he accidentally follows a link broadcast by a friend on a public feed. He figures he knows all the relevant information already.

The world, according to Isaac, moves to a four-four beat. Nothing unexpected ever happens. The planet is gradually getting worse and worse. Wars will break out, economies will collapse, cities will sink beneath the sea one by one, and there is nothing Isaac or anyone else can do about it. He doesn’t mind so much. He doesn’t think enough to mind. And anyway, there’s no use worrying about what he can’t change.

Instead, he is waiting. The music, and the walking, and the looking at the city through electronic fuzz and pops and squeals is his way of passing the four-four time. He is waiting, very patiently, for the first ships to go mars. It’ll happen any day now. He’ll see them in the sky and he’ll already be listening to the perfect soundtrack for getting out of here.

2: Nadia Petrokovitz

Nadia Petrokovitz ages the way a gypsy travels: she sheds things as she goes, to make space for the things that suit her. She weighs less now at ninety-five than she did when she was fourteen, her forearms are skeletal, and she comes up to her grandson’s belly button when she hugs him. But she moves with manic purpose, and wears sea green jogging shorts and watches Die Hard marathons on TV. She thinks Bruce Willis is sexy.

She keeps her hair cropped short and dyed red-orange like a robin’s chest, and wears vintage gold jewelry when she goes grocery shopping. She knows the names of all the clerks who work mornings at the Ralph’s near her apartment, and they know hers. When she leaves, the clerks whisper, “she’s a spry ninety-five, isn’t she?”

Nadia used to sell carpets for a living. She would go into peoples’ houses and measure their floors, pick out colors to go with the decor. Her own apartment is hardwood. She never liked carpet. She worked the job to support her husband’s drinking, then to support herself when he moved out, and then – once she became eligible for pension, and had no excuse – because she couldn’t think of anything else to do. But her husband’s twenty-five years dead now, and she’s learned to enjoy being single for the first time since she was eighteen. Men from the apartment complex bring her flowers and sing her songs from the old country in the rec room. Nadia spends a portion of her pension money on bikini waxes.

Nadia’s family cares about her very much. Her children and her grandchildren and her great grandchildren visit her often in her apartment. But more and more she can’t wait for them to be gone so she can go outside. She has so many things on her mind these days, so many possibilities. She is just now getting into go-kart racing, and learning to dance the quickstep. She volunteers as a poll-worker during local elections, and flirts shamelessly with the twenty-somethings who come to her door to distribute campaign literature. All in all Nadia has had a good life, but not nearly as good as the one she has now. 

1: Raymond Gelding

Drawing by Bex Freund

Raymond Gelding has a face full of wrinkles, but not the ordinary, logical assortment you see in most people his age. What I mean is, whereas some people’s wrinkles suggest a lifetime of smiling, or of frowning, or of grimacing in pain, Raymond Gelding’s wrinkles betray nothing. They are evenly distributed across all sectors of his face with an exactitude that is not accidental. Every morning, Raymond stands in front of his bathroom mirror and smiles exactly one hundred times. He then frowns twenty-five times so as not to become asymmetrical. He’s done this every morning since his twenty-fifth birthday. He is sixty-three now. He believes that by maintaining a tension balance between smiles and frowns, he can stave off the visible signs of aging. If anything, it has only brought them on more quickly.

In his closet, Raymond has nothing but a dull spectrum of business suits and a single red speedo. Every once in a while he resolves to go swimming, but the sight of himself bulging out of the speedo quickly banishes the thought from his mind. He wears suits to the office, where he works as a claims adjuster for an insurance company, but he also wears suits on his days off, and when he gets home from work he wears his suit until it is time to put on pajamas. He never lets his bare feet touch the ground.

Raymond Gelding is not an unhappy man, nor is he particularly happy. His internal world is more or less the same as his face. He is not unhappy because he has never allowed himself to experience anything that would make his current life seem unsatisfactory. He is not particularly happy, because any great joy would run the risk of destabilizing the compromise he has created for himself. Still, for a hundred little moments at the beginning of each day, Raymond Gelding really is uncompromisingly happy.