By John Thomas Tuft

“You ever dance, Preacher Boy?” My head jerked up. There he was thirty feet above me, a silhouette against the stars. He was seated on the end of the railroad trestle over the North Branch of the Potomac River, the border between the eastern panhandle of West Virginia and the hiccup of the western most reaches of Maryland. Zeke, a lost soul, a vagabond journeying this earth with the ever present bottle of cheap rye whiskey in a brown bag and a face disfigured by a drunken fall from this very trestle some years back. “Preacher Boy! Talkin’ to ya!”  The glow of the paper mill upstream and tendrils of steam and smoke gave the scene a hellish cast. “Get on up here and join me in communion, Preacher Boy.”

I scrambled up the steep slope, cast a wary eye at the height, and gingerly stepped onto the trestle. “You want some?” He tipped the bag and took a long pull. I declined. “What do you see when you look at me, Preacher Boy? What am I?” I shrugged. “C’mon. Ain’t nobody from the church here to pronounce judgement on ya.” I stammered out, “Well, uh, I, uh, well—I see a man.” He spit at my feet. “A waste of oxygen and human spirit. You can say it. I’m a sad old, disgusting drunk. Be honest for once in your life, Preacher Boy.” Before I could respond he grabbed my arm in a vise grip and started out onto the trestle. I helplessly followed, wrapped in the alcohol fumes trailing behind him. The ground dropped away and he stopped above the river. He pulled me down beside him on the cold rail, our feet dangling high above the dark water, my stomach dropping.

He took another pull. “What do you see? What am I?” I gulped, staring down at the drop off. “Zeke, what if a train comes along?” He turned to me, his one good eye blazing in the ghastly glow, his bad one staring blankly from the shadows. “What if one don’t, Preacher Boy?” He tossed the bottle into the depths. “We’ll have to either jump or we’ll have to go back and put my grandson in the ground.” He tilted his head, as though listening to the wind. “Zeke, what are you doing up here?” He stared at the stars. “Waiting for somebody to tell me what I am.” His four year old grandson had been struck by a car and killed earlier that afternoon. I studied his profile, wondering. He spoke ever so quietly. “What are you doing up here, Preacher Boy?”

My answer came out as more of a sigh. “I guess I’m waiting for somebody to tell me who I am, too, Zeke.” He stared at the inky outline of the mountains against the carpet of stars. “It hurts, Preacher Boy. It hurts like hell.” He turned on me, grabbing my arm again. “Do you believe in the suffering of the innocent?  You know, that innocent people suffer for sins of the rest of us?” He didn’t wait for my nonexistent answer. “He was a good boy. I never looked at him and said, that’s my grandson. I just said to myself, there’s a good boy. Maybe I didn’t want to contaminate him—same bloodline and what not.” His gaze broke my heart. “It just ain’t fair for him to die…and not me.”

“Even if you do believe it, you don’t want it to be true.” I gave my answer. He studied me for a long moment, his crooked mouth partially open. “You know what your problem is, Preacher Boy? You’re careless about what you’re becoming. Pay attention to it.” With that he hopped up and started back, leaving me alone on my perch. “Hey,” I shouted. “What about me? How do I get back?” He laughed. “Crawl,” he yelled over his shoulder. If you can’t stand up and walk, then crawl. You’ll make it.” He reached the end and turned to look back at me. “Don’t take too long though. The Midnight Special will be along in about 60 seconds!”

“Zeke. Wait. What about me?” He started to whistle as he moved into the shadows. His voice reached me as I searched for courage. “Learn how to dance, Preacher Boy. Learn how to dance.”

Words are magic, and writers are wizards.