You can’t really blame him. He’s been sleeping under a bridge in Missoula, a second coat wrapped around him like a blanket. Under his head is a backpack with all his worldly possessions: ramen noodles, a pocket knife, an old watch, a weed pipe, a can opener, bottled water and copies of his birth certificate and Social Security card. He’s come to Montana looking for work, hoping to earn a quick buck to buy a proper bus ticket home to Minnesota. At 39, he’s tired of this life, hitchhiking and hopping trains, town to town, circling the country counterclockwise for the past 20 years.
“The hell with this,” he tells himself. “I’m goin’ home.”
He buys a bottle of Skol vodka at a corner store. Vodka’s not usually his drink — he prefers beer — but it’s going to be a long haul home, and vodka lasts longer. He takes a pull from the bottle and waits in the shadows of the Missoula train yard. He scans the tracks for rail cops, known by train hoppers simply as “bulls.” Gusts of wind whip at his scruffy face as the sun dips below the horizon. When his train finally pulls in hours later, it’s already too late: He’s half shitfaced.
Chuck staggers toward the hulking steel box, as he’s done countless times before, and hoists himself onto a grain car near the front of the train — his second mistake. He settles in for the ride with the twang of country music beating through his earbuds. The train kicks to life with a jerk, and he’s on his way. Or so he thinks. Unbeknownst to Chuck, this particular train is headed west to Spokane.
He finishes the last of the vodka and shoves the empty bottle into his pack. Propped against an inside wall, he snuggles into his Carhartt jacket and pulls his stocking cap low. He drifts off to the train’s hypnotic rumble. Things will be better in the morning.
Suddenly, he’s jolted awake.
Braking hard just east of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe yard in Spokane Valley, the train flings Chuck, face first, toward the tracks below. His backpack explodes against the ground as he lands with a thud. His left leg doesn’t clear the track.
Like a dull table saw, the train rips off his leg just above the knee. It’s quick, but it isn’t clean. Blood spurts from his mangled stump as Chuck writhes on the ground, screaming. Rolling on rock and in his own blood, Chuck’s mind flutters in and out of darkness as he peers down at his nub, the wrong train continuing west without him.