Hobo in the White City

By Nick Wisseman

Remember when we used to be gods?

You’re right; completely right. I should know my place by now. And I do. But it’s hard to pretend I’ve always been what I am now.

Like yesterday, when Walter—the anarchist who picks his enormous nose when he thinks you aren’t watching and sucks in his gut when he thinks you are—was rehashing his failed plans to ignite the Ferris wheel on the fair’s opening day. Apparently the explosion would have been recompense for the “comrades in arms” he lost eight years ago in Haymarket Square. What a sodden fool. I nearly forgot myself after he lamented his wet gunpowder for the fifth time. “Detritus!” I wanted to yell. “Every last one of you! I was more than you and your ancestors put together!” But I managed to hold my tongue.

Hedge and his undersized uniform are a little less infuriating, but not much. He can’t decide who he wants to hit first: Mr. Pullman, “for docking us rail-worker’s pay all unfair like,” or Mr. Debs, “for getting everyone to up and quit the trains when some pay was still better than none.” Within a week, the ex-porter will be as big a drunk as Walter.

And then there’s Johanna. Slow, blocky, Johanna. She swears up and down that she learned the Hoochee-Coochee from Little Egypt herself, but I’ve seen sexier shimmies from wet dogs shaking themselves dry.

Walter seems to like her tired gyrations well enough, though. He asks for a private show almost every night, usually in the Woman’s Building. (Which amuses me to no end: I keep imagining one of the structure’s progressive designers walking in and having an epic conniption.)

At least they’ve steered clear of the Electricity Building; I’ve more or less claimed it for my own. The orphans are welcome to the Midway (where Little Egypt and the rest of the exotics cavorted); Hedge and the other destitutes can have the Anthropology building (and the artifacts Franz Boas declared unworthy of the Chicago Field Museum); the rats can take the rest. Just give me the remains of Edison’s direct current exhibit, the proof-of-concept he never finished dismantling after the press fell in love with the alternating current system Tesla used to illuminate the fair. There’s something comforting about seeing the damaged goods of another failed genius.

And his work reminds me of my former affinity for fire, the energy I used to wield so easily.

Some nights, after yet another day of foraging for spoiled food in abandoned vendors’ booths and dodging the Pinkertons the city hired to guard this empty wonderland, I forsake the Electricity Building for Olmstead and Burnham’s Wooded Island. It’s almost always quiet there; I think the calm makes the rest of the interlopers uncomfortable. And the trees look so…flammable.

It would only take one spark.

A fraction of what I used to be capable of. One spark to paint the fairgrounds orange and red and then black and gray. All I need to do is reach into myself, locate the old inferno, and—

Remember my place.

Because while I used to be a god, now I’m just a hobo squatting in the shell of the White City.


[Translator’s note: the “White City” constructed for Chicago’s celebrated 1893 World’s Fair—also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition—burned to the ground in 1894. Historians attribute the blaze to striking Pullman railway workers.]


Nick Wisseman lives in Bear Lake, Michigan with his wife, daughter, fifty cats, twenty horses, and ten dogs. (Okay, so there are actually ten times less pets than that, but most days it feels like more.) He’s not quite sure why he loves writing twisted fiction, but there’s no stopping the weirdness once he’s in front of a computer. Eventually he hopes to merge this stubborn surrealism with his academic training and produce something in the historical fantasy line. But for now, he’s content with the purely speculative fiction he’s published in magazines like Allegory, Bewildering Stories, and Circa. You can read his short stories here: http://www.amazon.com/Nick-Wisseman/e/B005G7XEN2