Murder in the Grand Canyon
Susan and her mother would take the Greyhound bus on their vacation each spring. It’s not that they had a fear of flying or an abundance of time, but they preferred the intimacy of long stretches on the road together, the hypnotic blur of white lines marking their progress. They particularly liked the periodic stops along the less-traveled roads where they could get out, stretch their legs, and grab a quick bite at the truck stops. And while the food might not have stood up to more discerning tastes, what they lacked in décor and interior design was counter-balanced with their no-frills hospitality and charm.
They were from Whitefish Bay, just outside of Milwaukee, and had mid-west sensibilities and mid-west manners. They weren’t naturally suspicious of people’s intentions the way big-city folk tend to be. They were always polite. Always courteous. Always assumed people said what they meant and meant what they said.
It was at one of these scheduled stops along the road where the incident happened.
Neither Susan nor her mother noticed the man sitting at a back table, just another fellow traveler on a journey. He was wearing thick, black-framed glasses that distorted his eyes, making them appear larger than they were. As he lifted his cup of coffee, he began to sway, its contents hitting the ground, sending the dark liquid flying in all directions. Everyone froze as the unexpected explosion of the cup shattered the early morning conversations, and an eerie stillness descended over the place. The man fell over as if in slow motion, collapsing onto the worn linoleum floor. A collective gasp fell over the diners, silverware froze in mid-motion, yet they all remained glued to their seats, no one ready to abandon their eggs and bacon and buttered toast.
No one, that is, except Susan’s mother. Being a retired nurse and no stranger to the fragility of the human condition, she was already by the fallen man’s side attending to him. She had a deep, hoarse voice, the consequence of a nicotine habit of too many years, which seemed odd given her diminutive presence and sweet demeanor.
“Back off” she commanded to no one in particular given that not one customer had left their seats.
“Anyone a doctor?” was followed by a prolonged dead-silence.
Susan was accustomed to her mother’s good Samaritan deeds and had seen her take charge in a crisis before. But now something else caught her attention, and looking to her right, watched as the young waitress behind the counter opened the cash register and relieved it of its contents.
In life there are serendipitous moments where we’re faced with decisions made easier by an odd confluence of events and this was one of them. The young waitress had forgotten to have the surveillance camera repaired which had stopped functioning the day before, as her abrasive boss had asked. It wasn’t purposeful, it had slipped her mind. But now with a jammed camera on the ceiling and a broken man on the dirty linoleum floor, they had inadvertently come together to create the perfect diversion for an amateur heist. She may have been invisible to the electronic eye, but not to the human one.
Susan watched as the waitress shut the register and stuffed the cash into her apron pockets. The young waitress almost immediately felt the heavy weight of Susan’s gaze upon her and slowly looked up, locking eyes with her. Dread gripped the young girl and she could only stare back in a cold panic, the language of silent desperation filling the void between them.
Meanwhile, the man who had feinted into a heap on the floor was coming to his senses, and he fumbled with his thick glasses, his eyes still foggy and unable to focus. But Susan’s mother already had him sitting up.
“OK, the party’s over” she barked, and spontaneous applause broke out across the rows of tables. And along with the collective sigh of relief came the familiar return of small-talk and clatter of metal forks and knives.
The waitress, slowly, deliberately, walked from behind the counter to Susan’s table and stood there. A long, tense silence settled over them both but the young waitress spoke first.
“Can I get you something”? she stammered, clearly terrified.
“Have anything green”? Susan casually asked.
The waitress gasped and took a deep breath.
“Listen lady”, the waitress said under her breath, “a lot of people do things they regret later, stupid things. They get hit by trucks walking across the street. They get too close to the edge and fall off cliffs taking selfies at the Grand Canyon. Dumb accidents. It’s not like I killed anyone”, she said quietly enough so only Susan could hear.
Outside in the parking lot the big Greyhound blasted it’s horn three times, the driver signaling it was time to re-board.
Susan got up as her mother approached the table and put down a generous cash tip, folding the bills neatly between the half-eaten plates of food, while the irony of the gesture wasn’t lost on the waitress in the apron.
Susan and her mother gathered up their things and walked out the door, the waitress following a few steps back.
“Have a nice day” Susan’s mother said to no one in particular.
It was only after the girl watched Susan and her mother climb the three tall steps into the bus, and the big doors closed behind the last passenger, that she felt like she could breathe again. The bus made a slow U-turn and pulled out of the gravel parking lot, kicking up a stone-dust cloud, and she noticed the red letters on the front of the bus.
“Grand Canyon” she mouthed the words to herself.
She watched the big bus maneuver out onto the interstate, walked across the parking lot, lifted the heavy steel door of the trash bin, and vomited her breakfast. She untied her apron, wiped her mouth with a twenty-dollar bill, and threw the apron and all the the cash into the bin.
In the parking lot an older couple of retirement age saw the girl bent over the garbage bin and asked if she was ok.
“Morning sickness” the girl said.
“Well don’t worry”, the older woman said, “it will pass. You’ll make a great mother”.
The waitress walked to her old Toyota, started the engine, and slowly pulled away from the scene of the crime, the broken surveillance camera, and the bus headed to the Grand Canyon, watching until they were all just a small cloud of dust in her rear-view mirror.