THE GRAND CANYON
by Katie Ryan Dahlson
The Montreal Review, January 2010
"Rain Spears, Grand Canyon" by Ed Mell, (Oil on Canvas, 24"x32")
Sherry had been good to him. His wallet may have been lighter but his belly weighed heavy with the all you can eat breakfast, and he prepared to head out on the 93 South, overall, a satisfied man. The cabin of the truck was an ice box, and he found the beers he'd left on the passenger's seat chilled to perfection. He blasted the defrosters and pulled a pair of leather gloves on over his sausage-link fingers. The cab jolted as he thew down the parking brake, with a twist of the key the giant diesel engine rumbled to life, that steady, familiar sound that Parker heard even in his sleep. When the windshield was clear he put the car into drive and pressed lightly on the gas, but stopped short. There was a kid, well, not a kid. A man. Well. Not a man. Standing in front of the truck, looking up at Parker, as though waiting. Parker waved him over to the passenger door and opened it up.
"Are you trying to get a ride, somewhere, son?"
"All right. I'm heading down this highway here a ways. If you want, I can take you as far as I'm going."
"Okay he says. Ha. Kid, get in quick though. And if you see a cop, you duck. Got it?"
"Okay, he says. Kid, do you speak English?"
"Very well, he says. Kid, I think you're about 4 aces short of a full deck, but I'll take you along anyway. Move those beers on the floor and sit down."
The truck swerved onto the highway, Parker eyed carefully for highway patrol. He relaxed and eased into his seat, tuned the radio to the traffic report. The kid sat stiff and staring out the window. "You coming from Vegas?"
"Nah, me neither. They got this truck stop right here, where I picked you up, you know that's a truck stop? What were you doing at a truck stop?"
"A guy dropped me off there."
"Well that place, truckers sleep free. But you know how they can do that right? Because they get us all nice and comfortable in our free room, and we're thinking, I just saved at least 30 bucks on this room, I might as well try my luck in the casino. You ever tried your luck in a casino? There ain't no such thing as luck in a casino. You're guaranteed to lose. And when you do win, usually it's just a couple dollars back of the wad you've already lost. So, in the end, the room ain't free, and ends up costing you a few bills, unless you can walk away, but I ain't met one man yet who can walk away. Sherry, that's the owner, treats us nice and the breakfast is sure good. I go down this road every week, drive right by Las Vegas , but I'll tell you one thing, I never been even once. Nope, that ol' truck stop is good enough for me. Some people think I'm too simple. I don't care for the lights or the buildings shaped like Paris or whatever, but a belly full of bacon and eggs can't be beat."
The sounds of radio static filled the void. The kid just kept staring out the window. His hands were cracked, his nails long. His hair was short, greasy. He had on a thin denim jacket with a hooded sweatshirt underneath, jeans, and a pair of boots. He shivered lightly.
"Kid, where you going?"
"The Grand Canyon."
"Well, son, that's a way's a way. And dressed like that? You gonna freeze."
"I'll be fine."
"Kid, you know the canyon is covered in snow. It's freezing during the day and more than freezing at night. We're talkin' 12 degrees. And you jus' got your dungarees on, like it's nothin'."
"It snows in the Grand Canyon ? In the desert?"
"Kid, where are you from?"
" San Diego ."
"Well, I take it you've never been out here before."
"To the Grand Canyon, once. But it was summer. It was so hot. I remember it was so hot."
"Take my advice, get yourself a nice jacket. They got places outside the park. Gear up. Or you're gonna freeze to death, kid. I am only gonna get you about halfway. But lots o' people goin' on this road. You should get a ride just fine."
The static, the rumbling of the truck, tires slapping hard against the asphalt. Parker chewed his lower lip. The kid cracked his knuckles.
"I heard that could give a guy arthritis, doing that." The kid shrugged. "Can you be discreet?" He shrugged again. Parker spoke in a conspiratorial tone. "Help yourself to one of them beers there. But be discreet about it. You know, I can't have kids and it's a good thing because I would spoil them rotten jus so's to be sure they liked me a bunch. I guess I'm bribing you to talk to me with that beer. What do you think, kid? You got somethin' to say?"
"What are you hauling?"
The kid laughed as though at a private joke.
"Well, it's not so glamorous, I know. But somebody's gotta do it. I take the trash from upper Nevada and haul it to the landfill out here, on this highway. Tryin' to get there before the afternoon. When the sun is high, even in winter, that smell is ripe."
The kid didn't say anything.
"It's a rotten thing about trash. You know, we jus' keep makin' more of it. And we jus' keep findin' holes to put it in, and I think, what happens when we filled all the holes? Maybe one day the Grand Canyon will be a landfill. We'll start throwin' our trash in there, maybe."
The kid snickered again in the same way, like he knew a secret.
Parker shifted uncomfortably. "Well, that beer seems to be lightenin' your spirits. Wish I could take you all the way, but I gotta be back near Reno tonight."
The cab stayed silent awhile. They passed the Hoover dam and gas stations and drove through the windblown mountain landscape, and neither of them spoke at all.
"Whoa, holy cow. Did you see that? Jack rabbit just darted by. I almos' killed the poor little guy. Sometimes these animals. You jus' wonder what they're thinkin'."
"Maybe he wanted to die."
"Now, kid, I'm going to tell you something. I am a man of my word, so I will take you as far as I said I'd take you, but I have to say, I cannot wait for you to get out of my truck."
"Let me out wherever you want. I'm not holding you to anything."
"All right kid. At the next turnout, if you don't mind."
"Right here. Good luck gettin' a ride. Take care of yourself, kid."
As Parker was dumping his load into the landfill he started to feel guilty about the way he had left the kid. If the kid was still there. would he stop? Maybe he'd just give him a couple beers or something. But the kid was already gone in the end. 'Good riddance,' Parker thought.
* * *
A cruiser sat in the driveway next to Christie's car. 'Oh hell,' Parker mumbled to himself, setting in the parking brake. He opened the door like nothing was out of the ordinary. His pretty blonde wife sat at the breakfast table, drinking coffee and talking with an Arizona State Police officer. She looked up, and offered a weak smile. The officer turned around and stood up. "Officer Wallace , Arizona State Police, how do you do Mr. Mills?" the cop said with a genuine smile and a firm grip.
"Well, Officer, I'm doin' fine. May I ask what you're doin' all the way up here? A bit out of your jurisdiction, ain't it?"
"Now, I keep sayin' they gotta stop with these cop shows on TV. Make everybody think they're an expert in the law. Mr. Mills, I'm not here to cause trouble. I just need to talk to you about a kid I think you picked up just south of Las Vegas . Now you're wife already confirmed for me you were goin' across the state line, and I have reason to believe you picked up a young man, 24 years old, and gave him a lift. Is that so?"
"Officer, what is this regardin'? Are you here to suspend my trucking license? Is that what this is? I never picked up a hitcher before, and I won't do it again. I gotta."
"Park, just listen to the man. Excuse me, officer, I mean."
"Not at all. No, Mr. Mills, I am sure you are a fine truck driver, and it's not my job to regulate your license. That's a bit out of my jurisdiction, you might say. It's about the kid, Riley Hawkins was his name. You see, apparently after you left him he got picked up by a family heading to the Grand Canyon . They were giving him a ride to the lodge in the park, but when the car came to a stop, he jumped out and ran over the edge of the canyon wall, falling to his death. The family said that he seemed a bit odd to them, but never mentioned anything that would lead them to believe he was suicidal. He did mention a truck he had gotten a lift in, that was taking a load to the landfill down there, and we found you were the only truck on that route, on that day. Now, like I said, I don't want to cause you any trouble. I just need to ask you a few questions for our investigation. Do you know who had given Riley a ride before you?"
"No sir. Didn't say."
"Did Riley say anything to you that would indicate he was thinking about killing himself?"
"Well, no. No, not at all. I mean, I gotta say, that kid, Riley?" Officer Wallace nodded. "Riley was a weird one. Quiet. I noticed he didn't have the right clothes. Wasn't dressed for winter in the Grand Canyon . I told him to get a jacket. But, no, nothin' about.that. You know. Killin' himself or whatever it is he did."
"But you noticed he was acting strange?"
"I mean, I didn't know the kid. Jus' picked him up. For all I knew, that's how he always acted. But, yes sir, he was an odd ball. Not right in the head, or somethin'."
"Is there anything else? Did he talk about his family, anything?"
"Said he was from San Diego. Tha's it, though. Like I said, he was pretty zip-lipped. Made me kind of uncomfortable, actually."
"In what way?"
"Jus' in that way that quiet people do."
"Okay. Well, let me just have you sign off on this statement. Thank you sir for your time. Ma'm, for the coffee. Y'all have a nice night. I can show myself out."
Parker put his hands on his cheeks and ran them back over his head. He heaved a sigh and dropped into a chair at the table. "Christie, how long was he here before I got in?"
"Oh, only about 15 minutes."
"Damn. What a thing. What a thing to happen."
"Are ya hungry? I made a pot of chili fresh this afternoon."
"Great, ya, serve me up a bowl wouldya? So young too. Makes you wonder. What are some people thinkin'? I mean, I sat in the truck with him for more than two hours. I didn't know that was brewin' inside him. How can somebody sit next to you like that, knowin' that, thinkin' like that, and jus' sit there like it's nothin'? Not sayin' nothin'. Jus' thinkin' those things, and quiet and all, and laugh with you, or at you maybe, and you're there, and you don't know what that guy's got brewin' inside, you know?"
"Oh, Parker, with some people you can never know."
"Jus' sittin' there and not sayin' nothin' and all that inside o' him."
"Here ya go, Park. You want some cornbread?"
"Nope, jus' a spoon." Parker looked up with wide eyes. "Now, damn, there was somethin'. When I asked him to get out of the car. A rabbit ran across the road and I said I almos' killed it and wondered what that damn rabbit was thinkin' and you know what that kid said? He said maybe the rabbit wanted to die. Can you imagine, an animal wantin' to die? A creature of God wantin' to die? Well, I was kind about it I suppose, but I asked him to get out. I guess that's kinda tellin' then?"
Christie handed him Officer Wallace's card. "You should give him a call, Park. That's pretty tellin'." Parker picked up the phone. Christie went upstairs to their bedroom, and pulled out clean sheets from the linen closet. Officer Wallace had interrupted while she was making up their bed. 'Ain't nothin' in the world clean sheets can't cure,' she thought, stretching the fitted sheet over the mattress. When she finished, she went downstairs. Parker sat staring into his bowl of chili.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot your spoon."
"Officer Wallace said I couldna' known anyway. Said it wasn't tellin' enough, and I couldna' known anyway. Do you think that?"
"You couldna' known."
"Sittin' there. Jus' sittin' there. And thinkin'.what? About death and dyin' and what ya like. Right there in the cab. Right nex'ta me. Wantin' to die. Lookin' me in the face, and wantin' to die."
"Are you gonna jus' stare at that chili all night?"
"I ain't so hungry. I think I'll jus' go to bed."
Christie spooned the chili back into the pot and put the bowl in the sink. Parker poured himself a small glass of bourbon and sipped at it. Christie went for the stairs. Parker drained the glass and set it on the table. Leaving the kitchen, he paused with his finger on the switch, suddenly afraid to face the dark.