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Excerpt: Wire to Wire

Today’s the official pub date of Scott Sparling’s debut novel, Wire to Wire. It’s garnering great reviews already, but sometimes it’s easier to let a book speak for itself…

A railroad bridge rose over the Mississippi near Winona—an elaborate structure with steel trestles and wrought-iron truss work, spanning a full mile across the river, tying Minnesota to Wisconsin. The bridge had been built in four sections, each forming its own arch. The second span, over the deepest part of the river, could swing open to let ships pass. Near the top of the span was a wooden bridgetender’s shack—a cabin up in the trusses where, in the old days, an operator would sit with nothing but a radio and a flask of whiskey, watching miles of open river. The shack was abandoned now, the bridge automated.

On the Minnesota side of the river, Harp Maitland stood watching an eastbound freight approach in the night. The train was a ways off and going too fast to hop, but it would slow as it rolled onto the bridge. He would jump it and ride across the river. Two days later, if things went right, he’d be back in Michigan.

Getting ready, he moved back from the rails into the higher weeds. His right arm swung wide as he moved—a gunslinger walk formed from days of wearing a tool belt, a hammer at his hip.

Harp wore an army coat stained with creosote. His hair was held back by a rubber band. He had spent the previous night in the bridgetender’s shack with a slender young woman named Melinda. If he had met her in a dream, she would have been some kind of winged creature carrying him off to the forest. Instead he met her in a bar. She was small and dark and not much over twenty-one, and she was getting revenge on someone who needed to be taught a lesson—boyfriend, fiancé, asshole. She found Harp in the Crosscut Bar, looking at maps and drinking Molson’s. What kind of maps are those, she asked.

“Railroad lines,” Harp said. He pointed out the different cross-hatching. “These are the ones I’ve ridden. And these I still need to ride.”

He moved his backpack and she sat down. Don’t use your luck and it goes away. That was one of his freight rules. It applied to women as well.

They had three more beers while she told him about the jerk who had left her. She had long dark hair and a trilobite fossil on a necklace that she didn’t take off when they made love.

It was tragic, Harp thought. The fossil against her flesh. The smallness of her hand. The way the night disappeared and was gone forever. You needed a really long freight ride to get a tragedy like that off your mind.

The train that was coming at him—the one that would carry him across the river—was a Green Bay & Western. The Snake, it was called. It curved across Wisconsin to the town of Kewaunee on the edge of Lake Michigan. From there, the cars would be loaded onto a ferry, the Chief Tecumseh—a mammoth ship that carried whole freight trains in its belly.

He’d had to help Melinda climb the ironwork to get to the bridgetender’s shack. Cold rungs led up the trusses to a narrow catwalk along the front. The cabin had been closed for years but the door was unlocked, just as Harp had guessed. “You first,” he said to Melinda. Her eyes were alive with the danger of it all.

She had wanted her clothes off right away and after she undressed they stood and looked out at the darkening world. The farms and roads looked like something from a model railroad. They could see a bottling plant on the Wisconsin side of the river, a miniature factory. The tiny lights of Winona. Even without a naked woman, the view would have stunned him.

As the oncoming freight grew closer, Harp pushed the image of Melinda away. On freights, stray thoughts and distraction could kill. What mattered was each new breath. It was why he loved riding trains.

When the headlight hit him, he spread his arms, not hiding. The engineer raised a gloved hand and so did Harp. Here I am, he said.

Very quickly, he spotted a Milwaukee Road boxcar, open on both sides. He jogged even with the train, putting a gloved hand on its side to feel its speed. He let the freight cars slip past until the open boxcar caught up to him. As it drew alongside, he threw his backpack into the car, grabbed the door frame with his right hand, and leaped. His eyes saw nothing—it was all by feel, legs swinging up as far as he could hoist them. He rolled in easily and got to his feet.

My Crosscut Hop, he thought. Something to make you feel alive.

As the freight crossed the Mississippi, the ironwork of the spans flashed past, cutting the river into frames. Out one side, the moonlit water rippled up, reflecting broken planes of light. The other way, south, the river was smooth black, a sheet of mica.

The idea was to ride the Snake all the way across Wisconsin. In Kewaunee, he’d hide in a freight car and let the Chief Tecumseh carry him across Lake Michigan to Wolverine, and Lane.

He supposed he should feel guilty about Melinda, but he didn’t. Sometimes you had to betray others to be true to yourself. That was just the way it was. If you didn’t know that, or if you were afraid to face it, you didn’t get much of a life. Sometimes you paid the price. Shit in all its forms would rain down, but shit would rain no matter what. You couldn’t stop it by trying to please others.

On the Wisconsin side of the river, the train surprised him by taking a switch. Instead of rolling east, it swung onto the southbound tracks of the Burlington Northern, carrying him away from Michigan and into Iowa.

Clear of the bridge, the freight was already picking up speed. There was little time to sort things out. Harp grabbed his pack and crouched by the door, searching for a spot to jump, looking for switches that might snap an ankle or bust his head. But the darkness hid everything in shadow.

Even as he tensed to jump, part of him thought how he had never ridden the southbound rails. Iowa was full of railroad towns he hadn’t seen. He hesitated a second or two longer before stepping back from the door. Letting the moment pass, letting the train decide where he would go. It was the right thing to do, he was certain. In another minute, the southbound was rolling fast, heading into the night and the dark mystery of Iowa.

Melinda had REPENT AND BELIEVE in ballpoint on the pale side of her forearm. She went to the Methodist college and she had written it there in class when she was bored. On the floor of the bridgetender’s shack, with her arms up over her head, the church words made her seem even more naked.

The freight swayed through gullies, cutting through trees and overgrown brush. Pockets of cold blew over Harp when the track dipped close to the river. He got out a joint and lit it, remembering nights when he woke beside Lane and found himself wishing for the boxcar floor. He worried sometimes that the memory of her body, which he carried with him when he traveled, pleased him more than the real thing. It would be better, he knew, if he stayed in Michigan more. But there was no stopping the going.

The track seemed to get louder as he got high and soon he forgot about Lane. The night was empty—there was just the breeze and the glowing joint and the fleeting glimpses of the Mississippi. All the good people had gone to sleep. Except for me, he thought. Except for the Methodist-humping, to-thyself-be-true freight riders. We never sleep. The night is just too rare.

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