Virgil Palely Loitering

Virgil Palely Loitering

I said, “Is this dumpster on fire?”

The fireman opened his eyes, looked down at me, and he said, “Yes.” He was standing on top of his firetruck, holding his arms straight out from his sides looking like Jesus when Jesus himself was hanging from the cross. The fireman’s lips were peeling apart from each other, and the whole area around his mouth and face reminded me of the time I filled a grocery bag with water and dropped it off a balcony. But that don’t mean he wasn’t a handsome man. His pants and jacket had those reflectors on them and the fire sure made them shine.

I asked him, “Well, are you just gonna stand there like a Jesus or something?”

“Not too much to do other than let it burn,” he said.

I thought that was pretty cool—that the fireman was pretty cool.

This whole night started when I was walking to Twoball’s. There’s not much to know about him—we only called him Twoball cause that’s exactly what he’s got. He was my best friend, and he lived down on Pond Street. I was walking there because my girlfriend kicked me out again. I got into an argument with her, and she told me to fuck right off into the night. They say Pond Street was the oldest street in town—something like two hundred years old. All the buildings on Pond looked like crap, all old and crooked, but I guess some people like that. People always like keeping things the way they were, but I never saw the point in having all these wooden buildings jammed up against each other, hardly no room between one another. Few of them buildings were empty.

Anyways, I was walking down the middle of the street near 9th and Pond headed toward Twoball down on 2nd. Up to my right I saw the parking lot that sat next to a real piece of shit abandoned building. I reckon it might have been the oldest building in town. It stood two stories but seemed lower. Ran long against the street. White paint flaked off the wood siding. I smoked cigarettes outside the building pretty often. I would’ve smoked inside of it too, but the door was bolted shut. No one seemed to care about that building. I threw rocks at the windows and smashed them out. Everyone did. Funny thing about that building was the dumpster that ran alongside it, and now it was burning.

I think the fireman knew I took a liking to him because he looked down at me and asked why I was walking down the middle of the street in the nighttime.

“I came here so I could watch this dumpster burn down.”

“It’s not gonna burn down, kid—just gonna char a little.”

“That sucks,” I said. “I’d like to see this dumpster burn straight down. I just got kicked out of my girlfriend’s and I’d really like to see this whole town burn down.”

“You shouldn’t go around saying that or I’ll know where to come looking if it happens,” he said.

“I guess you’re right,” I said. “I didn’t mean it.”

The fireman stood up taller on the truck after I said that and neither of us said anything for a while. I tried looking for the wooden ladder that used to lean against the dumpster, but the ladder was gone. I figure it must have been in the fire. I climbed up the firetruck and the fireman didn’t say nothing. We just watched the dumpster burn around inside itself. I was hungry and I thought the fire looked like my insides.


People used that dumpster like their own, for leaving stuff or for shopping. You could find nice things too—stuff was always coming and going, and I don’t think the trash men ever came and picked it up. The dumpster was one of them big shallow ones, real long and low, almost like the building it sat in front of. While smoking cigarettes one time I found a wool scarf in the dumpster. That’s the only time I spoke to the police.

I knew that scarf, knew who it belonged to. The whole town did. I seen that scarf hundreds of times, but that was the first time I didn’t see it around Footman’s neck. Footman spent his days outside Mason’s Bodega, holding the door for all the women and girls. He didn’t get any pay from Mason, he just liked holding doors. Liked being a gentleman. He slept down at Eddy’s Pond with all the other homeless underneath the gazebos. You rarely saw a homeless at the pond during the day, but at night they filled around the grass and in the water. They left their shopping carts and suitcases along the banks of the pond while they all took turns washing each other’s feet in the waters, washing their own clothes and armpits, washing over their faces. Some of them smiled in the pond, others had faces like they was made of stone. Footman acted like the governor of the homeless I guess. They all listened to him, looked to him for hope. He made friends with the lady at the bakery and she took all the old bread at the end of the day down to Eddy’s Pond. When the police sent the baseball team down with their bats to kick the homeless out of the gazebos, Footman was the first beaten. The homeless never went to the pond again, but Footman still showed up every day at Mason’s and held the door. No one knew where the homeless went at night after that and I don’t think they much cared. The last time anyone saw Footman was when he held the door for Centerfield’s girlfriend. Centerfield told Footman he was going to kill him the next time he saw him. It don’t make much sense that the cops cared about Footman’s disappearance after they kicked him out of the pond, but they still wanted proof of Footman’s whereabouts. I showed them the scarf. In school they taught us that Pond Street got its name from Eddy’s Pond.

A couple of days before I got kicked out of my girlfriend’s, I found a red bike inside the dumpster. The bike had flames painted all over the frame and the flames made the bike look pretty slick. Seemed in good condition, too, just needed a little grease on the chain. I rode that thing to Mason’s and traded it straight up to my friend Jim for three forties. I’m saying here that Jim was my friend, but he really wasn’t. Just some guy I traded stuff with. He had this big, stiff neck. Reminded everyone of that Frankenstein monster. You say Jim’s name to him and he had to turn his whole body to look at you. I thought that was funny sometimes. Caught a few good laughs from it.

I chugged the first forty quick in the employee bathroom after I broke the lock off. Mason never let us use his bathroom—don’t know why and he never answered us when we asked. I chugged the second on the bench outside the shop and then I guess I fell asleep in the sun for a few minutes. When I woke I saw that my last forty was gone. Had to have been Jim, because the bike stood all leaned up against the store and Jimmy wasn’t around. He must’ve been drinking my last forty in the bathroom just like I did. I got mad thinking about Jim drinking my forty with his big, stiff neck, so I rode Jim’s new bike back to the dumpster and threw it right back in. There was the ladder leaned against the dumpster, so I climbed up the rungs and opened up my pants. Pissed all over the bike. Happened to get a little piss on my pants too.


“Why are you the only fireman here? I thought there was at least two of you in a truck,” I said to the fireman.

“There’s a big fire over in Marion—the old hotel is burning down. Every fire company in fifty miles is there,” the fireman said. “Just me and this truck in town tonight.”

“I’d like to help you—I’d like to be a fireman,” I said.

“You’re just in high school, kid.”

“Nope, not true. I got my GED after I dropped out in the tenth grade.”

The fireman didn’t say nothing after that. I started to feel like I didn’t have much interest in being a fireman anymore.

“You know what,” I told the fireman, “my girlfriend said tonight she’d like it if I caught fire and burned down to ash because then maybe I’d have a chance of coming back as something better. She said that’s called reincarnation and that I need to be reincarnated. That I got all this stuff wrong with me and I need to burn it all away.”

“She sounds like something,” the fireman said. He pulled out a toothpick from his shining jacket and put it in his mouth for a second. Then he said, “Hell,” and pulled the pick back out of his mouth and chucked it in the fire. “I think all women are something.”

“Well that may be so, but maybe she’s right. I took a bike from this dumpster a few days ago and traded it for some malt liquor. Ended up stealing the bike back and then just threw it right back in here. I even pissed on it.”

“Must be why this fire smells like piss,” the fireman said.

“I accidentally pissed on myself when I did that.”

The fire was burning pretty good. Sometimes the fire got real big for a second, and it came pouring out the top like it was overflowing. I was thinking about jumping in.

“You think my girlfriend is right, that I need to burn myself away? I think I’d like to jump into this fire.”

“Hell, kid, there hasn’t been a fire I’ve seen that I didn’t want to jump into. But every time I get real close to doing it I start to think of what there is and what there will be.”

The fire picked up again and came out the top like horses running. All the horses had no hair and their skin was made of maggots. That’s how I remember it. I had a piece of paper in my back pocket—a list of groceries that my girlfriend gave me in the morning that I forgot to buy. She had this little drawing on it, three gulls flying over a ship at sea. I threw it in the fire and watched it burn for a little. Corners of the paper curled up and blackened and then it all lit up bright until it was gone. I spit close to where the paper last burned and my spit sizzled. I started to feel like I was already dead. I felt like that sometimes.

“Say, I really have to pee and I’d really like to piss all over this burning dumpster,” I said.

“Tell you what, kid. I’m gonna run down to Mason’s and get a coffee. I need you to stay here and watch this fire. You can piss all over it or whatever as long as you don’t leave it, you understand?”

I said yes and got down from the truck.

The fireman paused while he climbed down the truck. “Sometimes it’s tough for me to leave the glow of a good fire,” the fireman said. I didn’t know what he was getting at, but as I started to unbutton my jeans the fireman laughed. I think he was thinking I was gonna wait for him to leave, but I had to pee real bad and I didn’t mind him seeing nothing. Plus I thought he might be impressed if I could stand on the pavement and arc my piss up over and into the dumpster. The fire was warm over me and my penis felt long in my jeans from the heat, but maybe a little skinny. I held it in my fist when I pulled it out to cover it up a little. The fireman saw me holding my penis in my fist and laughed a little more.

“Your cock looks all right, kid,” he said. “I wouldn’t worry about a thing.”

He finished getting down from his truck and into the cab and then he took off down the street, leaving me as I stood squirting into the burning fire.


Like I said, I only had seven blocks to Twoball’s. You could smell Eddy’s Pond all the way down Pond Street. You could smell the pond most anywhere around here. It always smelled like leaves or worms or something. My girlfriend said it smelled like vanilla and air and running water through a warm hose, but I don’t know about any of that. When I walked into Twoball’s, I saw his roommate sitting there on the recliner facing the couch. He was just gazing. Booster was always gazing. Sometimes people gaze and you can tell they are thinking something through, but Booster never looked like he was figuring much out. I said, “Booster, are you gazing again?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Well what are you gazing for?”

“No reason I guess.”

Booster was gazing like nothing I’ve seen. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you gazing quite like this before,” I said.

He didn’t speak for a second. Didn’t even look at me. But he opened up his mouth, muttered out a little, “gazing like I never gazed before.” I saw he was gazing at a wet spot in the sheetrock, which I thought was something.

The apartment was okay. It had one big room that was both the kitchen and the living room. I liked seeing that—one big room that acted like two rooms. The kitchen part had a tile floor and the living room was carpeted. Twoball moved in here after he dropped out of high school.

“I thought you was supposed to be here an hour ago,” Twoball said when he came out of the bathroom.

“I was planning on it but I got caught up talking to a fireman.” Twoball laughed when I said that. Sometimes I was jealous of the way he laughed, like his whole body was laughing. He got them teeth from his mother and they showed right out of his mouth when he laughed. His eyes squinted up and almost disappeared and I knew the girls liked that. But I had a girlfriend, and he didn’t, so I guess I wasn’t too jealous at all.

“Why’d you get kicked out of your girlfriend’s apartment this time,” he asked.

I said I didn’t know.

“When are you gonna tell us her name?”

“I’ll tell you when I can get around to remembering it.”

Twoball laughed. “I don’t buy that you don’t know her name. You ought to tell us before I beat you to death.” He looked over at Booster. “Booster, wouldn’t you know your girlfriend’s name?” Booster didn’t move. Didn’t even blink. He fucking offered no response.

Twoball and I sat down on the couch. Both of us just stared at Booster for a few minutes, and I don’t think either of us knew what we were doing. Twoball snapped out of it and turned the television on. It was the eleven o’clock news. The volume was low but I knew what the people on TV were talking about. They showed pictures and videos of that hotel in Marion burning.

The hotel was bigger than what I pictured in my head when the fireman told me about it. Ten stories high, by the looks of it. Whole damn thing was burning, flames just ripping out all over the place. A lot of the walls were caving in, whole floors crashing through. Must’ve been thirty firetrucks there, just spraying that building down. The words on the television said the whole block was shut down and a bunch of people were trapped in the building. I reckon the firemen didn’t want to go in there, and that all those people inside were dead or dying. That made me sad, but then I got to thinking that all those people dying might get to come back as something better. A few more words scrolled across the screen. Tomorrow’s baseball game was cancelled on account of most the players being firefighters. I looked over at Twoball and he wasn’t even paying attention. I asked him if he believed in reincarnation.

“Yeah I guess I think I do,” he said, “but I don’t take to thinking too much.” I think he knew what I was getting at, because he started to watch the television too. “Damn,” he said. “That hotel sure is on fire.”

When the commercials came on I stood up to get some water out of the kitchen faucet. A commercial was for I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! brand butter substitute. Booster spoke up. He said, “Boys, what is the true nature of butter?” When I turned the spigot, the pipes moaned before the water came out. The water was hot and I drank it. I felt like I was burning. Twoball asked if I brought any forties like I said I would, and I told him again I got caught up talking to a fireman.

“That sucks,” he said. “I wonder if Stiff Neck Jim has any we can trade for. We should go find him and ask.”

Both of us got up and just left Booster sitting there gazing. Outside, the smell of the pond was different than I remembered. Smelled like grease or smoke, not leaves or worms or even vanilla. At the time I reckoned I was just thinking about the hotel burning in Marion—figured that the smoke was on my mind. We started walking towards Mason’s Bodega, figuring that would be the best place to find Jim. The farther up the street we got, the more the air smelled like smoke. I asked Twoball if he could smell it.

“Yeah,” he said.

And then I said, “Me too.”

Thick smoke filled the air by the time we got up to 5th. I could see that the firetruck was back outside the dumpster a few blocks up. I could see bodies spread out on the road, and I could see the fireman running his hose from his truck. I slapped Twoball’s shoulder and started running up that way. He followed.

The firetruck didn’t have its lights going and the siren was silent. Only sound was the fire cracking out the wood of that abandoned building, and the people out in the street screaming and crying, their hands holding up their heads, covering their mouths. The whole building was on fire—flames leapt straight from the dumpster. Some men and women watched, huffing and puffing, hunched over holding on their knees, their tongues hanging out their mouths. Guess they grabbed some stuff from the building; saw a few suitcases, but not many. Saw a few shopping carts full with junk. Everyone wore stained clothes, all ripped up. Seems the homeless all took refuge in that abandoned building. Don’t know how they kept it a secret from us. Probably a bad idea looking at it now.

When I saw the fire, I ran right up to it. Couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The fireman was there, trying to spray down the building with his hose. Homeless people were still crawling out of the windows, throwing clothes over the broken shards of glass. The dumpster sat along the middle of the wall—the fire started right there and spread out both ways like burning a candle in the middle. I don’t know why the fireman wasted all that water on the building when it seemed useless. He could’ve been helping all those people choking on the smoke. I ran over to him and twisted him around so he could see me. I shouted at him, pointed to all the people on their knees choking and praying. He hit me so hard I died right there. Cracked my head open on the pavement when I hit the ground. I bet you could see my brains.


I suppose there are a few things I regret having happened on the night I died. I reckon most of all it might be leaving that dumpster on fire without waiting for the fireman to get back after I pissed all over it, or maybe I regret even leaving my girlfriend’s in the first place. Her name was Yomi, and I always knew that. Guess I just didn’t much like telling people her name—didn’t like having to explain how her daddy heard the word Yomi when he was a merchant marine. Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean someone told him a story about a place called Yomi, some kind of love story or something. I guess he liked the story so much that he named his daughter after the word. After his service he took work in the mill, but after the paper mill closed up he couldn’t find any steady pay. Ended up hanging himself with his belt when he was left to dry out overnight in jail, and I don’t like having to say that.

Yomi had this skin—soft and white and fragile, and it always dried around her eyes. Before she slept she rubbed the corners of her eyes with Vaseline, and I would look over while she slept and them corners would always glow in the moonlight. She talked about my eyes too. She said she saw a lot in them—she said she saw all my hopes and desires. But whenever I looked at my eyes in the mirror all I ever saw was myself. Yomi had this habit of drawing all over everything—not just her notebooks but on any piece of paper. She always wrote different words next to each drawing, words that didn’t much relate to the picture I thought. Words like shell, or snow, or spring. I’d say she was a pretty good drawer, real good at drawing ships and gulls. And I always knew she was smart, way smarter than me, but I didn’t ever know what to make of it when she talked about all that reincarnation stuff. But here I am, waiting to be something again. She was always right, but she was wrong about one thing. My body didn’t burn, and it didn’t have to either.

Turns out that abandoned building was where all the homeless moved into after they got beat out of the pond. They kept it a secret for a good while until the whole thing burned down, even tried to keep quiet as the building started to burn—guess I am to blame. I feel bad being responsible for all those people losing their place to sleep, but most people weren’t hurt too bad, only a handful died. Mostly older people, they died a few days later from all the soot in their lungs. They was on their way out regardless.

Jim died that night too. Turns out he wasn’t even at Mason’s, so we left the apartment for no good reason. He was home at his own apartment, which was above his parents’ garage. He saw the fire from his window and ran down the stairs. He tried to peek out the window along the staircase by looking over his shoulder, but you know about that neck of his. His whole body followed his eyes and he tripped over his feet and fell down the stairs. He cracked his Frankenstein neck on the concrete garage floor. Nothing funny about that.

After the fireman punched me, he went right back to work. I guess he didn’t even notice I died—just went back to spraying the fire down. That old building eventually collapsed on him and he died all right, not knowing he killed me—I suppose that was best for him. Twoball dragged my body out in the street before the building collapsed. He sat with me while he watched the building burn and crumble. He knew there was nothing he could do but watch.

I remember that I liked watching that hotel burn down on the television, and I bet Twoball took some pleasure in watching that abandoned building burn down—something about that old paint boiling and disappearing and all that cracking the wood was doing. It feels good to see something fall down, I always thought, because you can just put it back up later with a little more prospect. I don’t know what happened to Booster, or where all those homeless people started sleeping again. And I don’t know what happened to Yomi or her glowing eyes. Seems I’m still waiting to get back.



About the Author

John Patrick McShea is from Pennsylvania. He holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Sonora Review, Hotel Amerika, and Hobart.