Misfit the Wanderer Excerpt

Watch at the end of time a fire grow from cinder and spark into blazing wall. Watch it rise over downtown, the river catching its red sheen and skyscrapers standing partnered with whorls of flame. Watch it spread north from downtown into Over-the-Rhine, its new bars and taquerias and nightclubs sitting adjacent tenement houses and boarded-up stores. Men and women approach the last of their time. Century-old buildings incinerate. One woman on Court Street breathes the smoke as she sleeps and her children shake her in her bed but she does not wake. They flee. The library on Vine burning as if doused in gasoline. Books alight. Microfilm liquefied. Chessboards on the upper story roasting to charcoal. Robed costumes in the playhouse on Liberty melting silken into the wooden sideboards of a wardrobe. Whole lives ruined by undirected chemical motion.

So watch—on Twelfth Street Misfit inhales a waft of acrid air, the night through his apartment window dark, the controller slick in his damp hands, the red-blue light of the game on his TV shining on his face. His headphones cover his ears like a pair of ear muffs. A line of smoke creeps through the crack in the window and Misfit coughs, chokes in the burning air. He looks up to the window from the screen, drops the controller onto his lap, and removes his headphones from his ears, tiny sounds of doom and violence contained in them. He chokes again and stands, takes three strides along the carpet, first sidestepping the coffee table (strewn with ashtray and cigarette butts, three empty beer bottles, a joint burned down to a nub), and peers through the window, all outside ablaze. He sees a wall of fire standing on the surrounding buildings, each one glowing as an ember at the fire’s core. The fire stands motionless on the buildings, segmented, engulfing them like a bright orange flower petal reaching up from the ground. As if bulbed from the concrete stem of the street the tip of the fire flickers in the wind. From eight stories up Misfit watches and counts the buildings, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, eleven buildings from east to west burning. The stars he should see above obscured by smoke as thick as mud, even the parked cars below in flames, tarfires hugging the street. Nothing moves outside, not one person visible nor sirens whistling in the distance, just tires burning and smoking to the vault of the sky.

Watching the fire leap on the buildings across the street Misfit pulls a smoke from his breastpocket and lights it and sighs when the smoke burns his throat. He coughs on the taste of the cigarette and blows the smoke out of his mouth and looks at the spectral reflection of his scraggly, black-bearded face in the window. He has not shaved for two years and in this time grey has begun to streak through his wavy, shoulder-length hair. His nose sits like a cocked arrowhead beneath his eyes and his eyebrows arc thin over them. Both of his ears are pierced with huge black saucers, though not the real gauges because those make him sick to his stomach. Then he opens the window and feels a radiance of heat. It blasts him back and his heart trembles in his chest like a decades-old rifle worn out and loaded and shot for the first time in fifteen years.

Holy shit, he says and stammers back, falling on his tailbone. Outside the blaze roars, even shattering glass to the street, timbers cracking and screaming. The night flaming and nothing visible but for fumes hugging the tops of the buildings. Though he would prefer not to go outside Misfit feels certain that the time remaining to him in his apartment should either be counted in seconds or not at all, that he will either exit the room and the building within a few moments or in days his charred body will be dragged out and interred and maybe those who have shunned him in life but wish to profess love for him in death will say words over his tomb.

As he lies on the carpet he sees the night through his window burning and feels the heat of the city’s fire on his flesh. Smoke curls into his apartment through the window. He will die. He knows this as all know they will die but his death could be tonight by fire. Others he has loved have died and he looked at their bodies and in their coffins they all lay reposed like mannequins. Corpses in their burial tins with skin like the leather of animal pelts. Everything gone from them and he could say nothing, his father and his mother weeping, his brother and his sister looking out of faces with eyes sunken in. He had looked off and known the nothingness, the brutality of the empty body once localized with thoughts and love, with fear and hatred, with a mind that before had told itself sentences to reflect the world but now could tell itself nothing. Tonight by fire he could die so Misfit stands, tries to think through the crazy pulse of his high. Brainlag. As if he skips an occasional second he turns his glance from one thing to another and his brain doesn’t register the intermittent space. He spends a moment in confusion until his eyes recognize what he sees. Then he turns his glance again and again he feels confused. His beating heart terrifies him. He can’t remember what he should do next. Each moment an eon, though he spends but ten seconds in indecision.

He breathes a heavy breath and at last says, What do I need to take to live tonight?