The front desk employee at the Prairie Motor Inn called dispatch, saying a man was standing on the train trestle spanning the coulee west of town. He was wearing jeans, a red jacket, and a red cap, but that was the only description the caller gave. When Jerry arrived a few minutes later, having received the call from the dispatcher on his radio, he recognized Des McCann standing out on the trestle, stock still, having walked about thirty feet out. Des McCann stood one hundred fifty feet above the brown creek that flowed languidly below.
Jerry pulled to the end of the gravel right-of-way and got out of his car, stiffening for an instant against the cold wind coming off the mountains. Another patrol car pulled in behind him, driven by Lester Watts.
“Do you know who it is?” Lester asked from his car, leaning his elbow on the open window.
“Des McCann, I think,” said Jerry. “Pretty sure.”
Without waiting for Lester to respond, Jerry walked forward, off the gravel road, and into the dry, gray prairie grass. He walked about twenty feet forward, stopping at a point where the earth began to curve downward. The coulee was steep here, and if he slipped, he could easily fall forty or fifty feet before he would be able to stop himself.
“Des? Des McCann?” he shouted.
The man turned his head. Yes, it was Des. About forty-five years old with an inch or so of a scraggly, gray beard crawling on his cheeks, and graying hair a few inches too long, Des McCann had come here from a nearby town as a younger man to get a job in the oil patch. He had been oilfield trash ever since.
“Des, what on earth are you doing out there?” Jerry shouted, trying to sound confused and slightly amused, as if this was just a harmless antic.
Des didn’t respond. He looked back down, his chin almost to his chest, staring at the river below. He was standing with his feet on the inside of the tracks.
Jerry turned around. “I’ll head out,” he said to Lester, who had exited his car and now stood alongside Jerry’s.
“Careful,” Lester said.
Jerry nodded and started out on the trestle. He wasn’t especially afraid of heights – a drive over the Going to the Sun road in nearby Glacier Park was an annual trip for his family, and the steep drop-offs never bothered him. But now, as he inched out onto the trestle, one of the highest in the state and built decades ago, he started to feel nauseous. That Warren deck truss bridge was a landmark on the west side of town, and Jerry had even traveled over it as a passenger on Amtrak, but seeing it this way, under his black boots, made him feel like he was walking into a movie, somewhere he was not supposed to be.
A cold wind was coming off the mountains from the northwest; every few minutes a vicious gust came roaring down, wrapping itself frigidly around anything it could grab. The steely clouds above would likely bring snow this evening. Jerry’s heavy coat kept him warm, but the wind cut at his ears and at his neck, chapping his lips and bringing tears to his eyes. He looked up at Des as he shuffled along the trestle. The red Wilson Drilling jacket he had on – company logo on the back and “Des” embroidered on the right breast – was worn and would not keep him warm. His ears glowed bright red, redder than the Wilson Drilling trucker’s cap, stained dull with sweat and crude oil, he wore on his head.
“Des, why don’t you come back here and we’ll have a talk?” Jerry offered. “I’ll buy you a hamburger at Sid’s.”
Des didn’t respond; he was staring into the coulee.
“Sid’s is right over there, and damn do they ever have good burgers. I haven’t had lunch yet, have you? I’ll buy you lunch. They have frozen yogurt too. My kids love it,” Jerry said. He didn’t know exactly what to say. He had gone through training for these types of situations, but when it was real and in front of him, nothing he was taught to say seemed sufficient or even intelligent.
Des stepped over the steel track so he stood on narrow steel mesh walkway, his hands hanging loosely from his pockets.
Jerry’s heart jumped when he saw Des make that move. “Des, I don’t want you to do that,” he said, inching closer. They were now about fifteen feet apart, but Jerry kept his voice above normal volume. The west wind was carrying his voice eastward, away from Des.
Jerry thought about the trains. About two trains an hour came through town. How long had they been out here? Was there a train coming? Had the dispatcher tried to contact Burlington Northern to tell them what was happening at the trestle?
A few cars had stopped on the highway to the south of them. Jerry could see that a handful of people had exited their cars and were watching.
“Look at that,” Des said, nodding toward the gawkers. “Nobody gives a shit about me any other day. And now look.”
“Don’t pay any attention to them,” Jerry said. He had stopped, now about ten feet from Des. “They don’t matter. We both know how people are. They just want to watch. They don’t know it’s you and me up here. It doesn’t matter.”
“What do you care about me? What the hell are you doing out here?” Des asked, leering sidelong at Jerry.
“I do care about you, Des. Let’s go back and get that burger,” Jerry said. He was racking his brain, trying to remember something significant about Des, something that might explain why he was standing out on the trestle one hundred fifty feet in the air, about to end his life. Des McCann was not what you would call a well put-together person, but most roughnecks weren’t. They were, many of them, rough and crude, but in Jerry’s experience, they were also some of the most sincere people he’d ever come across. Some of them drank hard and got into drugs, some of them beat on their wives or girlfriends, some were deadbeat fathers – but that’s how all people are. Des McCann ran with them but hadn’t quite fallen to the lowest rung.
In that moment, Jerry needed to know why Des McCann, the man whose wrists he had handcuffed a few times and whose ink-stained fingers he had pressed to a fingerprint card, was out here, and he really wanted to know.
When was the first time he had seen Des McCann? It must have been that fight at the M&M Bar over Memorial Day about twenty years ago. Jerry was a brand new police officer, having joined the department somewhat hastily after failing his Army physical to go to Vietnam. He wanted to serve – something – and felt guilty. The night he met Des, a call had come in around midnight that there was a hell of a scuffle. He walked into that dank hole of a bar and found a dozen roughnecks crawling all over each other, like a swarm of hornets. Des had been standing off against the wall by himself, his hands in his jeans pockets, the only person in the bar, including the bartender, who wasn’t in that swarm. Des just watched.
Des wasn’t from around here – Jerry would know, his family had lived here forever. He must have moved to town to work on the rigs right before that. Rig operators always hired more in the spring when the weather was good and work could get done. The money was good for young men who didn’t have or want much of an education. In some businesses, it’s who you know and who you’re related to. In the oilfield it was the exact opposite. It was almost as if they wanted the lowest, dirtiest hands they could find, the people who couldn’t get ahead any other way because they had the wrong last name or were the wrong color or didn’t do well in school. Those were the guys who were willing to work for themselves.
Several years later, Jerry had been at the courthouse when he saw Des McCann marrying Debbie Morris. Jerry had graduated with Debbie. She wasn’t too pretty and was ornery as hell, so it had always struck Jerry as odd that she was never single; she was the kind who always had some man hanging around. Des and Debbie had looked happy as they walked out of the courtroom, and Jerry congratulated them.
Two or so years after that, Jerry had seen their dissolution notice in the newspaper. He always kept an eye on those things so he could anticipate where the problems might come from, and in that case, problems came. Jerry responded to a call one night from Des’s neighbor, saying Debbie was standing out on the street waving a pistol around. When Jerry got there, Debbie was slumped over against her car, barely conscious and piss drunk.
“What are you doing?” Jerry asked her, glancing at the house. The lights were on, and he could see Des peeking through the drapes at them.
“He hit me,” she had said. “He hit me in the eye.”
She pointed with the gun, resting the barrel on her right cheek, red and enflamed.
“Who hit you?”
“Des, you dumbass.”
Jerry went into the house and found Des, in his toothpick-tight blue jeans, no shirt, and a Wilson Drilling cap on his head.
“Did you hit her?” Jerry asked.
“Yeah,” Des had said.
That was when Jerry arrested him and booked him and smeared his black fingerprints on the paper.
As far as Jerry knew, Des had no children, and Debbie Morris left town ages ago. Jerry would see Des at the diners around town sometimes, eating lunch with a rig crew or dinner on his own. Des drove around town in a brown Ford, which was often parked at the M&M.
Behind him, Jerry heard a couple more cars peeling out on the gravel. He turned his head just so he could see them out of the corner of his eye. One was another police car, the other was the red Pinto one of the newspaper reporters drove.
Jerry turned his attention back to Des, who was now looking at the two cars that had just arrived. His face was screwed up in confusion.
“Do you need a coat? I have an extra at home,” Jerry shouted, trying to redirect Des’s attention. That was the only thing he could think of to say just now, and he was being sincere. That red jacket didn’t look warm.
“I don’t want no charity,” Des said. Then added after a pause: “I ain’t worked in almost two months. I been sleeping on couches. I won’t get hired on again until at least spring.”
“We’ll figure that out over lunch,” Jerry said. “You’ve been out of work during the winter before, and you’ve been fine.”
Des moved his hands out of his pockets and Jerry jumped forward a few feet at the motion. Des didn’t seem to notice, only hung his hands at his sides. He was missing his ring finger and little finger on this left hand, most likely the result of a rig accident. No roughneck had all ten fingers.
“I had me some money in the bank then,” Des said, looking back into the coulee. “It’s all dried up. I used it all up. When I was twenty, that didn’t bother me. But now I think on all them years and how I ain’t got nothing to show for them, and I got more years ahead of the same. I don’t want to do that no more.”
Jerry understood what Des was saying. He felt that way sometimes, wondered if he had made the right choices. Jerry understood that, but he did not understand why Des was standing out on this trestle.
Jerry thought he saw Des lean forward a bit, and his Adam’s apple jumped in his throat.
“We can figure out the money, Des. Let’s go. Let’s go back to town and get some lunch,” Jerry said, gesturing and leaning back toward the parked cars and Sid’s restaurant.
Des looked up, and for a moment, the two men looked at each other squarely. Had he ever felt so close to another person, Jerry wondered. There were flashes in his life – sitting next to his father’s bedside as Lou Gehrig’s disease dissolved his body; saying “I do” in the church when he married his wife; looking his children in the eyes for the first time in the hospital, holding them so carefully, and saying, “Hi there” – but those had been fleeting. This moment, these few seconds, was long.
Out of the steely cold rang a train’s horn, coming from the west. Des turned his head in the direction of the sound.
“Des, we need to get going. Des!” Jerry called. “Let’s get out of the way!”
The steel tracks began vibrating. The train snaked around the hill, the oblong headlight shining on its orange nose.
Voices behind him started calling urgently. He couldn’t make out what they said. The cars parked on the highway to the south started honking.
“Let’s go, Des! We all want you to come down,” Jerry called again.
Still looking at Jerry, Des stepped with one foot into the air in front of him and started to lean forward. Jerry lunged forward, taking a few enlarged steps. He reached out and his fingers caught the sleeve of Des’s slick red jacket. In the next instant, his wrist snapped as he was pulled down by the force of Des’s body, and his body landed on the floor of the bridge, landing first on the extra twenty pounds he carried around his waist. He opened his eyes and saw a handful of the rotten red fabric in his fingers. Below him, on the ground, he saw the rest of that red jacket one hundred fifty feet below him.
The train blew its horn again, and Jerry was aware of the voices behind him becoming more urgent. He scurried to his feet, turned, and ran toward the shouting, the rumbling of the train shaking the trestle and the tracks screaming their high-pitched whistle. The engineer laid on his horn, and Jerry leapt from the track to the hard, cold dirt as soon as it was within distance. His cheek slapped the frigid ground, his ears ringing, and a moment later, he felt the train barreling by, shaking the ground beneath him. In an instant, the others were around him, trying to help him up.
“Jerry!” Lester shouted. “Son of a bitch!”
Jerry turned his head, still resting on the ground, and looked at that piece of red jacket in his hand.
Briana Wipf is a former journalist and a current PhD student studying medieval literature and digital humanities. She holds a master’s degree in literature from the University of Montana. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, Jesse. Follow her on Twitter @Briana_Wipf.