Underground Airlines - Ben Winters

Part One


It is a strange kind of fire, the fire of self-righteousness, which gives us such pleasure by its warmth but does so little to banish the darkness.

—Augustin Craig White, from The Dark Tower, a pamphlet of the American Abolitionist Society, 1911


“So,” said the young priest. “I think that I’m the man you’re looking for.”

“Oh, I hope so,” I said to him. “Oh, Lord, I do hope you are.”

I knitted my fingers together and leaned forward across the table. I was aware of how I looked: I looked pathetic. Eager, nervous, confessional. I could feel my thin, cheap spectacles slipping down my nose. I could feel my needfulness dripping from my brow. I took a breath, but before I could speak, the waitress came over to pour our coffee and hand out the menus, and Father Barton and I went silent, smiled stiff and polite at the girl and at each other.

Then, when she was gone, Father Barton talked before I could.

“Well, I must say, Mr. Dirkson—”

“Go on and call me Jim, Father. Jim’s just fine.”

“I must say, you gave LuEllen quite a start.”

I looked down, embarrassed. LuEllen was the receptionist, church secretary, what have you. White-haired, apple-cheeked lady, sitting behind her desk at that big church up there on Meridian Street, Saint Catherine’s, and I suppose I behaved like a wild thing in her tidy little office that afternoon, gnashing my teeth and carrying on. Throwing myself on her mercy. Pleading for an appointment with the father. It worked, though. Here we were, breaking bread together, the gentle young priest and I. If there’s one thing they understand, these church folks, it’s wailing and lamentation.

But I bowed my head and apologized to Father Barton for the scene I’d caused. I told him to please carry my apologies to Ms. LuEllen. And then I brought my voice way down to a whisper.

“Listen, I’m just gonna be honest with you and say it, sir. I’m a desperate man. I got nowhere else to turn.”

“Yes, I see. I do see. I only wish…” The priest looked at me solemnly. “I only wish there was something I could do.”


He was shaking his head, and I felt my face get shocked. I felt my eyes get wide. I felt my skin getting hot and tight on my cheeks. “Wait, wait. Hold on, now, Father. I ain’t even—”

Father Barton raised one hand gently, palm out, and I hushed up. The waitress had come back to take our orders. I can remember that moment perfectly, can picture the restaurant, dusk-lit through its big windows. The Fountain Diner was the place, a nice family-style place, in what they call the Near Northside, in Indianapolis, Indiana. On that same Meridian Street as the church, about fifty blocks farther downtown. Handsome, boyish Barton there across from me, no more than thirty years old, a tousle of blond hair, blue Irish eyes, pale skin glowing like it had been scrubbed. Our table was right in the center of the restaurant, and there was a big ceiling fan high above us, its blades turning lazily around and around. The bright, sizzling smell of something frying, the low ting-ting of forks and knives. There were three old ladies at the booth behind us with thin beauty-shop hair and red lipstick, their walkers parked in a neat row like waiting carriages. There was a pair of policemen, one black and one white, in a corner booth. The black cop was leaning halfway across the table to look at something on the white one’s phone, the two of them chortling over some policeman joke.

Somehow I