By John Thomas Tuft

When the sun goes down in the river town of Paradise on the eve of Thanksgiving, you can find Willy Nostic at the opening to the storm sewer talking to Jesus about the echoes in his head and the ride of the four horsemen toward the minstrels of the dawn. In the nearby tavern, two rivermen argue over frosty mugs of lager about using the queen’s gambit as the opening move in a rousing game of chess, never mind that they are playing checkers. Chelsea Tripper is waiting at the top of the back stairs with a forlorn look on her face that speaks volumes about the faded dreams of ever getting out of this place. Johnny Chase asks her one more time to let him take care of her, assuring her his luck at the tables is about to change–honestly, for real this time. All he needs is a hundred bucks and a hot deck. Freida carries a tray of drinks across the slippery floor of the tavern, a half dozen shots of Wild Turkey nestled around a bottle of vodka, because it’s Thanksgiving after all, while the strains of Bruce Springsteen singing Dream, Baby Dream…”come on and open up your heart”…curl around the heads of the supplicants like cigarette smoke in river fog.

The Stranger sits in a shadowy corner. He is in town two days early before his next trip on the river, pushing a tow of twelve barges of ore, chemicals and coal through the locks and sweeping bends of the Ohio to the Mississippi and then south to New Orleans. From deck hand to rigger to mate to captain, life on the river has its own rhythms and demands. Hopefully, there will be enough time before ice forms on the river to get through this trip and get home to Alexandra. The weather is unseasonably cold, reminding him of the time he spent in Kodiak with the Coast Guard. Riding the roller coaster of the Bering Sea, braced against the fierce wind, standing watch on night patrol where he used to take his grandfather’s brass compass out of his pocket and imagine setting a course for the nearest star on a ride of magic and wonder. To find love and bring it back for all those who had none.

Frieda stops by his table. “Can I get you anything?” He smiled. “It’s Thanksgiving. How about an Irish coffee?” He watches her thread her way back to the bar, where Allie sits alone, nursing a drink, hoping that no one will talk to her but desperate for someone to listen. She looks up and catches a glimpse of her own reflection in the giant mirror, noting once again, with a sigh, that she has the face she deserves. Three stools down Bobby surreptitiously bites hard on his lip, drawing blood, just to see if he can still feel. He looks up and sees Allie watching her reflection. She catches him watching her in the mirror but before she looks away, they both see the face of The Stranger in the back, watching them with interest.

While they are gazing at the mirror, they see Johnny coming down the stairs, looking disappointed and uncertain. Soon after, Freida descends pushing crumpled bills into her jeans. The door opens and Willy stumbles in, calling out with evangelical fervor, while waving a McDonald’s bag with the head of a wet, scrawny kitten peeking out in wide-eyed wonder.  “The moon fell into the river. I’ve got my ticket to heaven right here, ladies and gents. Follow me and I will crucify your mind.” Fat Eddie comes out from behind the bar to shoo this street prophet away, unaware that he has knocked his pocket journal to the floor, where it lays open to a page headed “Things I didn’t do right.” The paper is warped and creased, as though it has been soaked with the brine of tears. The two rivermen pause their game of checkers as an uneasy silence falls over the Paradise Tavern.

The Stranger bows his head as a towboat out on the river speaks its mournful song in the syntax of saints and sinners alike, echoing across the dark sacristy of the Ohio River. Frieda sets the Irish Coffee in front of him and he stares into this baptismal font of deep desire, this longing for being known that swirls and diffuses into the thirst awaiting the bitterly sweet bite of the drink. Finally, he digs into his pocket and takes out the antique brass compass. He places it upon the table in an invitation to all to seek their own true north. He drinks deeply, then he quietly stands and leaves these pioneers of faith’s folly so he can return to the river and continue his journey to love. Fat Eddie picks up the compass and turns it over as the other supplicants gather round. They pass it from one to the other to the other, each taking a moment to trace the words inscribed on the back with a finger…’with humility and gratitude. Always.’

And thus there was Thanksgiving in Paradise…

Words are magic and writers are wizards…with a nod to Mark Knopfler and Rodriguez from my playlist.