A man with nothing else to do goes in search of somebody else's tragic end.
By: Arnold Bustillo
Hector hated being retired. He thought he hated his dead end job selling commercial printing machines, but no, retirement was much worse than expected. Married to a high school sweetheart he no longer loved, the goal of jet-setting around the world enjoying their retirement never manifested. Even if there was enough money in the bank, even if the two could find a way to enjoy each other’s company, the fact was that both of their bodies were just not up to the chore of wandering from tourist trap to tourist trap, spending their nights on stiff hotel mattresses. Nowadays, they kept themselves busy by finding excuses to stay out of each other’s way. She spent the bulk of her time at the public library, and he spent most of his time hunched over cups of coffee at the local diner.
One day, while Hector nursed a cup of coffee at his favorite diner, a group of young men walked into the diner, breaking the atmospheric silence with their youthful, jovial clamoring. The young men, there were three of them, lowered their voices when they realized how loud their voices carried within the walls of the diner, and moved toward an empty booth, which happened to be right across from where Hector was sitting.
The trio talked more softly, but still loud enough for Hector to hear clearly. The way they talked about graduation, upcoming job interviews, and one last road trip, Hector surmised that the three young men were about to graduate from college somewhere, enjoying a final ride down the slopes of boyhood, before they found themselves on the forced march up the mountain of manhood. The presence of the three young men in the booth next to him made Hector reflect on his own youth, and all the promises he made himself when he was a young man. He was supposed to have a life of experiences – not necessarily excitement – but experiences. He wanted to sip wine in France, snort cocaine in Manhattan, and fish in the Mediterranean Sea. He reflected on those desires, and got lost in his own mind.
“Excuse me, sir.”
A voice from outside of Hector pulled him back into the diner. He saw a hand waving in front of his face, trying to get his attention. It was one of the three young men in the booth next to him.
“Yes?” Hector asked.
“Do you know how far the Grand Canyon is?”
It must be the next stop on their epic road trip, Hector thought to himself. He knew exactly where the Grand Canyon was – it was just a few dozen more miles up the road. He pointed up the road, and told the young men they couldn’t miss it. “At this time of the day, if you don’t see the line of cars waiting to get into the park, you’ll no doubt see the giant hole in the ground.”
The young man who first got his attention thanked Hector for the help. Then one of the other young men spoke up with a comment that Hector wasn’t expecting.
“Hey thanks; but I'm not going to see the hole in the ground, I’m just tagging along in the hopes I’ll see someone fall into it.”
The two other young men appeared almost embarrassed by the their friend’s comment, but acted like it was no surprise coming from that one. Every group of friends has the one wise guy who gets off making comments that shock and surprise, and this trio of college kids seemed to be no different.
“See what?” Hector asked, at first certain he misheard the young man, but when he saw the shit eating grin on the kid’s face, he became certain he heard the comment loud and clear.
“I wanna see someone fall in,” the wise guy said, before pausing to see if anyone would engage with his bullshit. His two buddies refused to engage – they had learned how to ignore the wisecracks, but Hector was intrigued.
“What makes you think you’ll be able to see someone fall in the Canyon? And why would you want to see something like that?”
“It’s supposed to be pretty common,” the wise guy replied. “Something like one person a month falls to their death, and that’s not including suicides. If I did the math right, I got a better chance of seeing some tourist go splat than I got of winning the lottery.”
Hector sipped from his coffee, and then remembered that the young man only answered half of his question. “And why do you want to see a tourist go splat?”
“Call me a collector of memories and experiences,” the young man replied.
The three young men left Hector alone after that. They ordered a meal, ate, and left. Hector, on the other hand, was struck by something the young man had said. He called himself a collector of experiences. Hector had never thought of it exactly that way, but that’s exactly what he wanted to be when he was the young wise guy’s age. Back when the world was his oyster and bad decisions could always be forgiven.
The next day, as Hector sat alone in his living room staring at some random TV program, the words from the wise guy the day before echoed in his mind. Collector of experiences, he had called himself. Watch a tourist go splat, he had openly admitted. Out of curiosity, Hector pulled out a tablet computer that rested almost permanently beneath a stack of old National Geographic magazines. The tablet was a gift from a young neighbor who used to live next door. More of a hand me down that Hector only accepted so as to not seem rude. Hector was a man who described himself as being fond of the pre-internet days, but he had actually used the tablet on occasion to look up more information on things he read about in a National Geographic, or heard about on some documentary. The young neighbor who gifted him the tablet showed Hector how to use a search engine, and taught him that if there was ever anything he wanted to know, all he had to do was type a question, in plain English, into the search bar, then tap the search button. Previous questions he had typed into the search engine included things like, "What insect has the longest lifespan?" And, "How many people in the world speak French?" Pretty benign stuff. That day, as he sat alone in the living room, the question he wanted to ask was considerably darker than anything he had wondered before; "How many people fall into the Grand Canyon every year?"
In under a second, Hector was presented with thousands of articles on the topic. He picked one from the top of the list and began to read. The wise guy from the diner was right. Give or take, about one person per month is known to fall into the giant pit of the Grand Canyon. Not counting suicides.
Hector turned off the tablet computer and returned to staring blankly at the TV set. He was admittedly a little surprised at himself for what he began to think. Hector was not a bad man, not an angry or violent man, but something in him - a deep, dark curiosity he had never known before - had been activated.
A collector of experiences, he thought to himself.
It’s not like I’m going to push anyone, he rationalized internally.
The idiots will fall into the Canyon all on their own; Darwin in action, he told himself.
Hector again reflected on days gone by, and again became dismayed by how little of the world he had experienced, how few amazing things he had witnessed. If a young person had inquired into Hector's life story at that point, the story would have been short and boring. A life story void of highlights or interesting moments. I once saw a man fall into the Grand Canyon, he imagined telling a hypothetical listener. Now there was a story people would want to hear.
He made up his mind, and decided that, in fact, watching someone fall to their death was a memory he wanted to collect. Over the next few days, Hector did his research. Not wanting to leave something like this to chance, he used his tablet to search for more information. Eventually, he found a map that actually plotted the known deaths to have occurred in the park, and he saw a huge cluster of reported accidental deaths hovering around a place known as Mather Point – a popular lookout destination on the south side of the canyon.
The first day Hector went to scope out Mather Point, he could see why the area was so deadly. The only thing standing in the way of the tourists and a fall to their deaths was a simple metal fence. A simple metal fence that for the average American adult would not extend higher than about the stomach. It was an easy enough obstacle to defeat for the daredevil looking for the photo of a lifetime. He observed plenty of notices warning against climbing the barriers, but also noticed that these warnings were mostly suggestions, with no serious threats of a fine or prosecution to give them any bite.
This is the spot, Hector thought, pleased with himself and his rudimentary detective work. This is where I’m going to get to watch some poor schmuck fall to his death. Or maybe her death. Or maybe their deaths. A grin pulled across Hector’s face. Maybe I’ll get lucky and get to watch a whole fucking school bus hurl over the edge. This last thought made Hector chuckle.
Over the next several weeks, Hector made the drive from his home to Mather Point on the Canyon’s southern rim, where he would try to spend at least the afternoon, when the number of visitors in the park would be at its highest. When he didn’t feel like driving all the way back home, sometimes he would rent a motel room near the Canyon and make a long weekend of it. His wife never asked where he was spending all his time, and Hector never brought it up.
Eventually, on a warm, August afternoon, Hector finally got to see what he was waiting for. A man old enough to know better, probably in his mid-30s, had climbed over the short fence. During his time at the Canyon, Hector had actually been able to see several people climb the fence, at least a dozen, but all of them were able to cheat death and climb back behind the fence before they lost their footing or got caught by a surprise gust of wind. Each time Hector saw someone climb over the barricade, he would go over to where the person had climbed, in order to give himself as good a view as possible, and then he would just wait. Like a dog eyeing a piece of steak from the dining room floor, Hector’s eyes would grow wide, and he would focus all his attention on whatever fool decided to unknowingly risk their life for Hector’s private enjoyment. In almost all cases, other tourists and park visitors would start recording on their cell phones, and some would even try to coax the fence climbers back to safety – but not Hector. After positioning himself as close to the fence climber as possible, Hector would clutch the safety fence with his hands, and then chant in his mind, as if calling upon an imagined telekinetic power, fall you idiot. Slip and fucking fall. I want to see your body bent and broken at the bottom. Fall!
On that day in August, the routine was just the same. The man who should have known better, the one who was in his mid-30s, climbed over the fence and began to toy with his own cell phone. People behind the fence started to record the man, and some started trying to coax him back. The man who should have known better paid no mind to anything but the cell phone he was operating. Hector clutched the fence and stared in anticipation. The man beyond the fence line eventually put his phone in his pocket, apparently satisfied by whatever footage he had just captured, and twisted his body to return to the designated lookout area. It was on the trip back to safety that the man’s foot twisted on a loose rock, causing his feet to give way, and his chest to smack the rock surface beneath him. His hands grasped for something solid, anything solid to give him an anchor to hold on to, but there was nothing. As Hector watched this event unfold, this event that would surely be described as a tragedy on the evening news, Hector briefly made eye contact with the man who should have known better, and one of the last thoughts that must have surely crossed through that poor bastard’s terrified mind was, Why the fuck is that old man grinning at me?
Gasps of shock and horror came from the rest of the tourists at Mather Point. Some people screamed, and some people shouted for anyone with a phone to call 911. Hector did not scream, nor did he dial 911 – he wanted to see the conclusion, he wanted to see the bent and broken body at the bottom, but he couldn’t, because the fence line was standing in his way.
In a momentary lapse of judgment, motivated only by his macabre desire to put the cherry on top of what was already a great story that people would love to hear, Hector climbed the fence for himself. Hector, who thought he knew better, and who thought he was smarter, planted his feet beyond the designated lookout area, and slowly began to inch further and further away from the short fence that was now behind him.
Easy does it, Hector, he thought to himself. Just a quick look at the mess below, and then you’ll go back. Just a quick look.
Recovery teams would eventually recover Hector’s body and the body of the man who fell before him. Having fell from almost the exact same point, the two men were found within 10 feet of each other, all bent and broken as one would expect. While Hector may have got the story of a lifetime, he never got the chance to tell it. Interestingly enough, it was all of the other tourists, the ones who respected the fence line, who got to walk away with a truly rare story to tell – the story of the day they saw two different people, complete strangers, accidentally fall to their deaths at the Grand Canyon.