Walter wakes up curled around a shopping cart. Everything is in it: a panel of the "Yellow Kid" comic strip wrapped in plastic; a pane of glass from the Crystal Palace; campaign pins from Eisenhower's second run; cans of paint; everything else. Trade one of the campaign pins for a cup of coffee then get down to business: the line of white paint that started--when the paint was fresh--in Germantown or Center City, he doesn't remember which.
At first there is just the white line, like a boundary at the edge of office buildings or the city zoo. And people know about Walter: newspaper articles and the memory of a job; someone had to be responsible for all that paint. Then come others--like Mattie, a frightening woman who stands 6'4" and weighs 250 pounds and is homeless (who can imagine?)--painting the city with an array of colors. The lines down the Ben Franklin Parkway change weekly, daily.
None of this bothers Walter--the work, the work--but the city's oldest residents--who remember a time without lines--and the youngest--who think Walter's a freak and dangerous (children as old as 18 report the intrusion of the man with the white paint into their nightmares)--form a temporary league against the painters. The old ones say, "Damn them. Ban them." The young ones say, "Burn them."
Walter wakes up, bent over, on all fours. When at work, it is a dream, and I don't know where I am, or where I have been, but there is paint all over his hands and they are white. The line comes from around a corner, and the boys follow it until they find him. They carry lights--no, torches--blue with fire. Someone carries a can.
Look for someplace to hide, stand behind the cart, rummage through for something to throw. Newspaper clippings flutter in the air. They don't go far. What else can I throw? Look, but don't get paint on everything--the paint white on my hands. They are on top of you. Grab one of the torches. The fire lights the paint, and the paint ignites, flames dart from my fingers--it's almost beautiful, if only there wasn't the pain. There is nothing to put this out.
Someone splashes you into blue flame, and from my eyes-- alight, without lashes--everything is on fire. From around the corner come some brighter than others, one tall, still a woman. They track footprints of fire until they drop. We are all on fire! In the cart the plastic shrinks from my heat, glass breaks, and the everything melts. I hear their voices--no longer sighted--"Oh my god. Look at him go."
Brian Brennan has a Ph.D. in creative writing from SUNY-Binghamton, and lives in Pittsburgh. The stories, "Walter" and "Morning Walk" are part of a long series of stories about Philadelphia--a city where he lived for most of his life, and which he carries around like a virus, not an illness. He is at work on a novel.